As with many products, the convenience of today is the bane of tomorrow. So it is with disposable wipes. They may be “flushable,” but sometimes they don’t get too far.
Along with other items that shouldn’t go in the toilet, disposable wipes clog up sewer lines and pumps, and sometimes cause spills. Dislodging these so-called fatbergs — they also trap oil and grease — is expensive, not to mention a horror for sewer divers who manually grapple with the clogs like one pulled out of Charleston’s Plum Island sewage treatment station last week.
Despite the problems, the multibillion-dollar market for disposable wipes is still growing at a rate of more than 5 percent annually, according to a recent industry report. An Amazon.com search turns up more than 400 disposable wipe products.
The Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on what can be labeled “flushable,” which is a step in the right direction. Americans, however, are particularly averse to disposing of personal hygiene wipes in bathroom trash cans. That needs to change.
In most countries, even toilet paper isn’t flushed. We certainly don’t advocate doing that (we all have our limits). But Americans tend to flush everything that will clear the toilet, including cigarette butts, tampons, tampon applicators, cotton swabs — all of which contribute to clogs.
Clingy personal wipes, often made of synthetic woven materials, don’t degrade as fast as toilet paper and create snags inside pipes that grow into gargantuan clogs. Wipes containing synthetic fibers can also release micro-plastics into treated wastewater that is then returned to rivers and oceans.
Frank McQuilkin, the head of a Maryland company that helps municipal, industrial and commercial clients deal with clogs, recently told the industry publication Water & Waste Digest that disposable wipes were the primary culprit, but reduced water volume also contributes to obstructions.
“Fifteen years ago, there were no baby wipes being flushed down the toilet, and flush valves have been steadily replaced by more efficient, low-flow fixtures,” he said. “The combination of lower flow and higher content of solids is too much for many pumping systems to handle.”
The mass stuck in the pumps at Plum Island caused eight West Ashley sewer mains to back up, officials told Post and Courier reporter Bo Petersen. According to Charleston Water System, about a ton of material that should never have been flushed is removed from sewer lines daily. The problem is believed to have grown worse since 2014 when the cost of removing clogs was put at $180,000 annually.
So if you use disposable wipes, put them in a garbage can or use a diaper hamper to store them until the trash is picked up. Because we all end up paying the hidden cost of “flushable” wipes.