The Erie County Sewer Districts have experienced many instances of blockages related to residents flushing paper towels, napkins, wipes, and similar items down the toilet.
Why? Toilet paper is designed to breakdown after its use. Think about a time you spilled water on the floor – if you try to clean up the water with toilet paper, it starts to fall apart. Paper towels, wipes and other items generally do not. This video from MetroVancouver provides a good example of this phenomenon:
But aren’t some of these items labeled “flushable”? Erie County has not seen paper towels labeled as “flushable” but there are some wipes that include that term on their packaging. Generally, “flushable” means the item will pass through the toilet. However, the toilet is not the only thing the item must clear on its journey to a wastewater treatment plant.
After your toilet, the things that are flushed must pass through your home plumbing pipes, a pipe between your home and the public sewer referred to as the “private lateral”, the public sewer system, pumps, and more. Toilet paper will disintegrate as it passes through the home plumbing and the downstream system. Other items either do not disintegrate as well… or do not disintegrate at all. These items are called “non-dispersibles.”
Why is it a problem if these items are non-dispersible? Things that do not break down may get hung up in the sewer system on items such as roots. Often times non-dispersibles mix with other components in the sewage and start to accumulate. As these items get hung up or start to get larger, pipes may get clogged. The non-dispersibles may also block mechanical equipment like pumps . Below is a picture from one Erie County pumping station where all of the pumps stopped functioning due to “stringy” masses of wipes and other non-dispersibles accumulating in the pump volutes.
Why are plugged sewers and blocked pumps a problem? Plugged sewers and blocked pumps cause backups in the sewer system… and it can happen at any time: 2:00am, weekends, holidays, etc. This requires Erie County crews to mobilize specialized equipment to address the issue. In the meantime, there could be a sanitary sewer overflow or sewage could backup into homes.
Another problem is that the non-dispersibles do not necessarily always make it to the public sewer system. These items can also clog plumbing in homes or the private lateral pipe, which may also cause a sewage backup. If this is the case, the homeowner oftentimes needs to call a plumber to correct the issue.
In either instance it is costs residents money. Work on the public sewer system is funded by the sewer district charges levied on ratepayers. Plumber costs come directly out of a resident’s pocket. More importantly, backups of sewage into homes can be messy and overflows can cause ecological harm. It is important that we all do our part to prevent this from occurring.
Is this only happening in Erie County? This problem has been reported by sewer service providers across the Country and the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic the United States Environmental Protection Agency put out a press release on the topic. London England’s Thames Water Utility reported a 130-ton “fatberg” that needed to be removed from their system at significant cost. Dr. Oz had a segment on the topic of “flushable” wipes during one of his television episodes a few years ago.
What can I do? Keep it simple – only flush toilet paper. Everything else goes in the garbage because “Toilets are not trashcans!”