Wipes wreak havoc with city's sewer system

Some people use “wipes” to take off makeup.

Parents use them during diaper changes on babies.

Some people keep them in the bathroom to provide that extra bit of clean that toilet tissue doesn’t always provide.

But according to Milford’s wastewater personnel, these wipes, even if they are labeled “flushable,” are causing a huge problem with the city’s sewer system.

Lou Lanzaro, Milford’s collection system foreman, said the wipes, cloth rags, moist towelettes — whatever you choose to call them — cause clogs in the city’s sewer lines and pumps, and often need to be vacuumed out of the system or pulled out by hand.

The way the city’s sewer system works is this. Toilets flush, and the water and other material is carried down the drain and through a lateral pipe from the home to the sewer line in the street. From there the material may travel to a wet well at a pump station — which is sort of like a holding tank — before continuing to one of Milford’s two wastewater treatment plants, where solids are removed and the liquid is cleaned (to what they say is a drinkable level) and then deposited into the Housatonic River.

Toilet paper disintegrates along the route, but wipes do not, city officials said.

It’s hard to estimate how many times city workers have to lift manhole covers or open wet well tanks and clean wipes that have created a mass within the system, said Lanzaro. In some areas there are four to five clogs a month.

If the wipes have gotten stuck inside a pump at one of the pumping stations, city workers try to pull them out. But if that doesn’t work, they have to disassemble the pump to get the material out.

“This prevents us from doing other things that we have to do in the course of the day,” Lanzaro said.

And there are a lot of things this department has to do to keep sewage from seeping into the forefront of people’s minds, instead of remaining one of those daily facts of life that people tend not to think about. The wastewater personnel check the lines, they monitor computer feeds, they check the pump stations — all so that Milford residents can flush without worry.

If there’s a backup, that could mean sewage starts bubbling up into the road, or worse, backs up into people’s homes.

“It’s a real problem,” said wastewater superintendent Ed Kozlowski about the wipes, noting that wipes started raising a red flag about five years ago, and the problem is escalating as more people use them.

“Twenty-three years ago, this wasn’t a problem,” Kozlowski said.

“‘Flushable’ doesn’t mean it is flushable,” Kozlowski said, adding that wipes are an even bigger problem if a home has a septic system.
Clogging the sewer lines
There are 225 miles of sewer lines in Milford, 45 pump stations and two sewer treatment plants — the Housatonic Sewer Treatment Plant and the Beaverbrook Sewer Treatment Plant.

Not only do the wipes cause clogs, they also wear on the pumps, said Lanzaro, holding up a photo of a pump with a shiny ring: that ring should not be shiny and smooth, he said, noting that the wipes are wearing it down.

As for the clogs, the wipes are bad enough on their own, but often oils, greases and other material improperly flushed combine with the wipes to create a near concrete-like mass, Lanzaro said.

It’s hard to say how much the wipes are costing the city, but Lanzaro said that if an outside contractor has to be called in to flush a line, the bill is usually $3,000, and that can happen three to four times a year in some areas. And that doesn’t count the man-hours the Milford crews are putting into clearing out the wipes

With a crew of 30 people, including office staff, and a goal of holding costs, the wipes are causing a budgetary problem as well, Kozlowski said, and that could get worse if the wipe situation doesn’t get better.

The wastewater staff knows where the trouble spots are in the city. Some are areas where the sewer line elevations contribute to troubled flow, and therefore the wipes can create even more havoc. So the crews check and clean these areas regularly to prevent backups. There are about 55 trouble spots throughout the city.

Wastewater officials tell people only the three Ps should go in the toilet: poop, pee and paper — toilet paper.

Sumner Johnston, working leader with the wastewater division, said he attended a demonstration where different brands of wipes were put through a washing machine to demonstrate that they do not break down the way toilet paper does.

Paper towels and even facial tissue did not break down during the demonstration, added Craig George, supervisor of technical services.

“Any rough spot is apt to grab ahold of something like that,” Johnston said of these other paper products. “If we didn’t maintain the lines, you’d have a main line blockage.”

When the sewer treatment plants were upgraded in 2009, a stepper system was installed to help remove material like wipes. But that system comes into play only at the end of the road for the sewage, at the the sewer treatment plant. It is along the way to the plants that the material still causes a problem.

And, of course, there are other items that come through the line that shouldn’t — pill bottles, feminine products, children’s toys, dentures, a shirt once.

But on a regular basis, it’s the wipes causing the problem, city officials said, adding that changes within the system, including the redesign of a blade to cut the wipes before they get to the pumps, have been incorporated to try to lessen the blockages.

There have been other attempts, too, to help the situation. Wastewater officials noticed more wipes clogging lines near senior housing complexes, and they worked with the Milford Housing Authority to try to spread the word about what should and should not be dropped in the toilet. The housing authority printed a flyer telling people not to flush paper towels, ‘disposable’ or ‘flushable’ wipes, or cleaning wipes of any kind.

But Kozlowski and his crew say the word needs to be spread more.
Milford and beyond
Milford isn’t alone in the wipe dilemma. According to a May 2015 article published in Waterline.com, a Minnesota city sued six manufacturers of “flushable” personal wipes, alleging that the product is clogging up the sewer system.

“The lawsuit sought class-action status on behalf of cities grappling with the disposable cloths that wastewater officials say are plugging pipes and pumps,” the article states, citing the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The complaint stated: “Flushable wipes remain intact long enough to pass through private wastewater drain pipes into the municipal sewer line, causing clogs and other issues for municipal and county sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants, resulting in thousands, if not millions, of dollars of damages.”

An ABC News report in 2014 said that over the previous five to six years, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection spent more than $18 million to have wipes removed by hand from the sewer system.
Manufacturers defend ‘flushables’
But makers of “flushable” wipes say they are not the problem. Kimberly-Clark, for example, maintains that there are “flushable” and non-flushable wipes, and it is the non-flushables causing the clogs.

“Kimberly-Clark stands firmly behind the flushability claims on our Cottonelle, Scott Naturals, and Pull-Ups Big Kid moist cleansing cloths due to our SafeFlush technology,” said Bob Brand of Kimberly-Clark.

He said the problems being encountered by wastewater facilities are not being caused by flushable wipes but rather because consumers are flushing items that shouldn’t be flushed. “Studies have shown that roughly 90% of items found in sewage pump station inlet screens are not designed to be flushed,” Brand said in an email to The Milford Mirror. “This includes paper towels, napkins, baby wipes, feminine hygiene products and household cleaning wipes.”

He said Kimberly-Clark flushable products are thoroughly tested to ensure that they meet the current U.S. industry guidelines for flushability.

“Kimberly-Clark’s flushable wipes are engineered to have strength at point of use, but to then lose that strength after flushing,” he said. “The fibers used to make our flushable wipes are 100% cellulosic wood pulp fibers, and the wipes use patented SafeFlush technology, unique to Kimberly-Clark, enabling our flushable wipes to lose strength as soon as they are flushed and move through properly maintained plumbing, sewage or septic systems.”

In contrast, he said, non-flushable wipes, including most 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.”

The company encourages customers to read the labels. “For example,” Brand said, “Kimberly-Clark has a ‘Do Not Flush’ label on our Huggies baby wipes.”

The Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry added that flushable wipes make up only a fraction of manufactured wipes.

"Only 7% of manufactured wipes are marketed as 'Flushable'," reads a statement from the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. "In contrast, 93% of wipes are NOT designed nor marketed to be flushed, with most carrying a 'Do Not Flush' symbol and/or disposal instruction. By creating legislation to remove flushable wipes, this will not improve the situation, but instead make it worse because customers will replace 'flush-friendly' products with others not engineered to be flushed."