The coronavirus pandemic is posing an unprecedented threat to the health and wellness of America — in more ways than one. Government leaders and medical professionals have urged the public to wash their hands and sanitize objects before touching, essential to minimizing the spread of the disease. But in the course of our daily efforts to comply with the latest guidelines, we need to be mindful of all the disinfectant wipes and other materials we use. especially when it comes time to get rid of them. As the virus spreads, so does the pressure we are putting on our sewer lines, which are not built to be disposal points for used hand wipes, paper towels, napkins and other materials.
In short, we need to remember that we can't use our toilets and sinks as our trash bin. Just over the past week, we have seen an increasing number of towns and cities across the country reporting blockages in their sewer systems due to buildups of used hand wipes, paper towels and other inappropriate items. In Woonsocket, R.I., a neighborhood sewer pipe became so clogged with balled-up wipes that it caused basements in four area homes to fill up with raw wastewater. It took more than 14 hours to fix the problem, costing over $20,000. With scenes like this playing out across the country, it's important to remember that hand wipes and paper towels do not break down in the system as easily as toilet paper does, causing backups. These items belong in the trash, not the toilet.
Not only can this lead to added costs for municipalities to clear their lines of backups, but it can be costly for you, too, if the blockage is located in your sink or toilet drain. What's more, these backups can contribute to large masses of accumulated grease, paper products and other items called "fatbergs" — some of which can extend for hundreds of yards and threaten your community's wastewater system.
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Each year, the U.S. spends an estimated $100 million addressing fatberg issues in cities big and small. In New York last year, such cleanup costs exceeded $18 million, and even in smaller towns, these annual costs can climb to tens of thousands of dollars.
Given the United States’ D+ rating for wastewater infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers, it’s critical we do anything we can to help, especially in times like this.
Although the biggest culprit in the fatberg fiasco is restaurants disposing of grease without properly operating traps, another major offender is the mega-market of so-called “flushable” wipes, which are anything but sewer-friendly. Flushed down the toilet, they become attached to accumulated grease and oil residing in pipes. That starts a destructive chain of events in which a fatberg develops, grows over time and eventually leads to overflows, backups, clogged pumps and failed sewer systems.
Take the case of Rialto, Calif., where my company, Veolia North America, operates the city’s water and wastewater treatment plants. Last year, we had a fatberg-induced backup that caused a significant overflow at two busy intersections. Several teams from our local wastewater and water facilities, as well as the city’s public works and police departments, spent the better part of a week cleaning a sewer overflow in a local street. Heavy equipment and extra staff were called in to flush and vacuum out the accumulated waste to prevent contamination to nearby waterways. These types of events, unfortunately, inflate operational costs and take up taxpayer resources.
Individual homeowners can also face significant plumbing issues if they don’t think about what they are flushing down their pipes. Sometimes fatbergs form in household pipes and become so bloated that they cause the toilets in people’s homes to back up, flooding their homes with raw sewage. That’s one of the last things most Americans need, with nearly 90 percent now staying home to prevent coronavirus spread.
So as we work together to stay healthy and take necessary precautions to fight the pandemic, it’s important to think twice before flushing disinfecting wipes down the toilet. Keep washing your hands and wiping down surfaces. But when you're done with that wipe or paper towel, throw it in the trash, not down the toilet.
Keith Oldewurtel is Chief Operating Officer at Veolia North America, which provides wastewater treatment services to municipalities in the U.S. and Canada.
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