By Rachel Parsons
Stop flushing bathroom wipes down the toilet—even those whose packaging says it’s OK. That’s the message from the sewer authorities of the City and County of Los Angeles.
Regardless of what the product label says, bathroom wipes do not breakdown in sewer systems and wastewater treatment facilities, according to both departments. The agencies join countries and cities around the world asking the public to quit putting them in the toilet.
On a sweltering August day, Jeff Valdes, operations supervisor at the county’s San Jose Creek Water Reclamation Plant in Whittier, used a pole to scoop a large, slimy, putrid mass of what looked like white carpet out of a sewage settling tank. A “raft” he called it—anything that floats on top of the tanks. But the mass wasn’t carpet; it was a bundle of bathroom and disposable cleaning wipes bound together by coagulated fat, oil, and grease, or FOG, as it’s known in the wastewater business.
“We have hoppers, we have valves, different parts of the plant here and it starts clogging … the valve openings and different things like that throughout the plant,” he said.
On the other side of the tank Sam Pedroza, an environmental planner with the department, stepped away. The fetid odor of raw sewage was too much.
“People [are] generally using the toilet as a trash can as opposed to what it’s intended for,” Pedroza said. That includes the wipes, he said, which both men would rather see put in the trash.
“There’s already enough stuff that goes down naturally through drains. There’s the hair, there’s the other stuff that we have to deal with that’s part of the process,” Pedroza explained. “But to add more things … that the different [toilet paper] companies say, ‘Oh yeah you can just flush this down the toilet,’ yeah that’s not [true], that’s something that as an agency that deals with wastewater, we see the firsthand impacts.”
Valdes estimates those impacts cost San Jose Creek alone $30,000 to $40,000 per year in maintenance and repairs caused by clogs and breakage from wipes. At his plant, often, the material must be removed from equipment manually. He said the systems in place today simply aren’t equipped to cope with new material.
“We always tell people to only flush the three Ps: pee, poop, and toilet paper,” said Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “Wastewater systems, sewer systems were designed to handle human waste and wastewater. [They] are just not designed to take these other kinds of consumer products and break them down and dispose of them.”
The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County joined NACWA and an international consortium of wastewater agencies in June endorsing “flushability” standards that the group would like manufacturers to adopt.
The standards were based in part on field research, Finley said, conducted in sewers in Vancouver, Washington. The consortium, the International Water Services Flushability Group, ran the tests.
The group released samples of major-brand bathroom wipes available in the Unites States as well as toilet paper into a sewer line through a manhole. The samples were soaked in water for 30 minutes, tagged for identification and material, then released. They were collected 30 to 45 minutes down the line. The results contrasted claims by some manufacturers that wipes would break apart in a timely manner once flushed.
“The toilet paper breaks apart quite easily,” Finley said of the test results. “All you really retrieve from the toilet paper samples is the identification tag. But the wipes show up pretty much fully intact. Depending on the brand, it could be completely intact, it could have a little tearing or something but none of them are breaking apart anywhere near the way toilet paper does.”
Need biodegradable wipes
The standards developed by IWSFG call for wipes to be made of only biodegradable material, not float, and break down into pieces quickly. But all of these guidelines are voluntary and product makers have developed their own standards that NACWA doesn’t endorse. Finley said her group would like to see legislation to solve to the problem.
“There’s different debates on whether these products should become illegal, or should it be an educational approach,” Pedroza said back at the San Jose Creek facility.
The educational approach is working for some people.
“We use them, but we don’t flush them,” Marina Alvarez said. The Sylmar resident, her sister and daughter said they heard not to flush wipes from environmental documentaries and international news – even the ones that advertise it’s safe.
“Some say ‘biodegradable,’ some don’t,” she said. “The packaging could be better. Sometimes the [don’t flush] label is at the back,” making it hard to see or easy to ignore.
According to NACWA’s Finley, as it stands, there is no consensus between the wastewater group and manufacturers on changing the material. The one thing they did agree on, Finley said, was the “do not flush” label on packaging, but as Marina Alvarez noted, the product makers can put it in not-so-obvious places.
But bathroom wipes aren’t the only problem.
Auto mechanic rags
At San Jose Creek, Valdes has started to see something he thinks is even more vexing: disposable auto mechanic rags.
“For a while it was micro-beads, [then wipes], now these things are showing up,” he said, holding a large, thick, pink disposable cloth rag that was difficult to tear by hand.
He pointed to another raft in a different tank comprised of dozens of plastic tampon applicators, plastic cigar tips, drink straws, swizzle sticks, pen caps, cotton swabs, makeup bottle caps, travel-size lotion bottles, condoms, and hypodermic syringes. All have to be removed manually if the skimmers and hoppers don’t catch them.
He said he wished this region could take a cue from countries where nothing is flushed down toilets except human refuse.
“You go to Mexico,” he said. “They have a trash can where they throw the paper and everything. And [people] say, ‘Oh they’re backwards.’ Actually, they’re correct. We should have trash cans here for us, for all the products and everything. And then dump that in the dumpster or trash. You know? But we don’t. That’s what we should go to.”