SUMMIT, NJ — The frantic call notifying the public works department of backed-up sewer pipes is not uncommon. In fact, blockages in both main and private sewer lines occur often, and flushables wipes and cooking oil are to blame.
Summit experienced its most recent episode of this when the main sewer system became clogged Jan. 22.
While the blockage was quickly cleared by the city’s Department of Community Services, governmental officials issued an alert, notifying the public of the cause: the flushing of adult and baby wipes and feminine hygiene products, along with the improper disposal of cooking oils, and implored city residents to stop such behaviors.
“Don’t put anything in the line,” Aaron Schrager, deputy of the Department of Community Services, told LocalSource in a Jan. 26 phone interview.
“People only think about what happens when you flush stuff down the toilet twice in your life,” he said. “That is, when it is backed up and you make a frantic call and the other is when you are a child and try to flush your toys down. The sewer system is an underappreciated element to our infrastructure because you don’t see it. It’s the unknown, so people take it for granted.”
Recommending that residents and businesses take proactive steps to abate sewer blockages, Schrager told LocalSource that recycling and reusing cooking oil is important. People can also dispose of oil with their trash, he added.
While restaurants are the biggest contributors of grease to the sewer system, he suggested that restaurants soak the coagulated grease in towels and then throw them out.
Schrager recommends that homeowners reuse cooking oil or collect it in a container.
“If you cook bacon, use the same oil to make the eggs, that way there is a dual use,” he said.
While grease has become a main culprit, flushable wipes are also a sizeable contributor and are most often the reason for a blockage, according to Schrager.
“Despite what you hear about them labeled as ‘flushable,’ they wreak havoc. They float around and dance in the sewage, one meets the other and it becomes a tail, they get caught and cause a logjam effect.”
Sam Mardini, Springfield Township’s engineer, also told LocalSource that products labeled as ‘flushable wipes’ should not be flushed.
“Although these wipes are often labeled as ‘flushable,’ ‘biodegradable,’ and ‘sewer and septic safe,’ these products do not actually break down in water and can cause plumbing problems, including clogged toilets and more serious sewer line blockages and backups,” Mardini posted on the township’s website.
“Reportedly, consumers have spent hundreds of dollars unclogging blocked pipes, while wastewater treatment plants have spent millions repairing and replacing machinery that could not process the wipes.”
According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 publicly owned wastewater-treatment agencies across the country, sewage blockages caused by wipes have been estimated to cost utilities up to $1 billion per year.
In response to costs associated with such repairs, the District of Columbia passed the Nonwoven Disposable Products Act of 2016, which does not allow manufacturers to advertise products as “flushable” unless they satisfy specific criteria.
The law states products must: disperse within a short period of time after flushing in the low-force conditions of a sewer system; be nonbuoyant; and free of material that does not readily degrade in a range of natural environments in order to be labelled “flushable.”
The law also requires manufacturers to communicate on such products that they should not be flushed.
In September, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, which manufactures Scott Naturals, Cottonelle and Pull-Ups flushable wipes, sued the district over the law, saying it is unconstitutional.
Kimberly-Clark Corporation media relations Terry Balluck told LocalSource that the company stands behind its products.
“Our flushable wipes are manufactured using wood-pulp fibers and are engineered to lose strength as they move through properly maintained plumbing, sewage or septic systems,” Balluck said in a Feb. 2 email to the LocalSource. “In contrast, ‘do not flush’ wipes, including baby wipes, disinfecting wipes, face and hand wipes, household cleaning wipes, etc. include long plastic fibers, and are not designed to lose strength or break down.”
Balluck noted that the key point in this debate is that independent, forensic studies have consistently shown that flushable wipes are not causing the clogs.
“Rather, it is products that are not intended to be flushed, such as baby wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, tampons, dental floss, grease, fats, oils, restroom paper towels, and other products,” he said.