When it comes to deciding what to flush down the toilet, Scott Herdener has this advice: "Stick to the three P's: pee, poo and toilet paper."
He added, "Wipes have to go in the trash."
Herdener, a wastewater operator at Clackamas County Water Environment Services Tri-City Facility on Agnes Avenue in Oregon City, said that the problem with wipes is that they will not disintegrate in water, so they damage pumps, pipes and other equipment at wastewater facilities, resulting in expensive repair and replacement of equipment.
First, Herdener noted, no wipes are flushable, even if the packaging says so.
"Those wipes have sat in their packaging for months, yet when you pull them out they are wet. If they don't disintegrate while being removed from the package that is a good indication they will not disintegrate when flushed," he said.
"Some wipes contain plastic in their weave, and when they get a little beat up they release microplastics that are not going to be removed by the treatment process," he said. Those microplastics can be harmful to fish and other aquatic life, he added.
Who is to blame for this situation?
"People in the industry would say manufacturers, marketing, and the failure of the government to crack down on marketing," Herdener said.
"Wipes are convenient and comfortable, and we are far removed from a time when humans had to be concerned with the disposal of their own waste."
He added, "We take it for granted, and when the wipes damage these facilities they damage the community's front line of defense against disease and pollution."
The solution is to educate the public about the harm that comes from flushing wipes down the toilet. Some people already know this, he said, adding, "People with their own septic systems don't flush wipes; people with RV's don't flush wipes."
When consumers flush a wipe, it travels through their plumbing and lateral sewage line to the main sewer line and then heads downstream, traveling through a network of pipes and pump stations on their way to the wastewater treatment facility.
Once at the pump station, wipes clog the pump station equipment, resulting in greatly increased maintenance and potential pump failure.
For example, the Willamette Pump Station in West Linn has sustained significant damage from wipes clogging the pumps.
"We had to spend a great deal of money to get new powered pumps because the [Willamette Pump Station] could not go three days without being clogged," Herdener said.
"Here, at the Tri-City plant, we are pretty fortunate that we have installed better bar screens," he said, but any debris that gets through the screens takes up space in the digester and creates a need to clean that out.
Cost to consumers
When wipes plug a homeowner's own system, a plumber can come and clean out the pipes — for a price.
Dan White owns Portland Plumbing Company, based in Oregon City, and he said that when he gets a call about clogged pipes, he charges his minimum fee of $100, even though it may take him only five minutes to clean out the wipe.
If this keeps happening, costs can mount up, and Herdener said if enough wipes get caught in the homeowner's sewer line, it can cost as much as or up to $3,000 to dig up the line and clean it out.
He noted that it costs roughly $60,000 to retrofit a pump station like the one in West Linn. Water Environment Services has 22 pump stations, "and the cost of running [the plants] goes up when things have to be replaced," he added.
And then there is the problem of dealing with overtime costs.
When there is a three-day weekend, for example, and some pump stations can't go more than three days without a clog, then workers have to come in over the weekend to make sure the pumps don't fail, Herdener noted.
Even at the Tri-City Facility, where the bar screens collect a lot of the debris, wipes that get stuck in the screens have to be cleaned by hand, and those get put in a truck and taken to the dump, where "you have to pay by the pound" to dispose of the waste, Herdener said.
And the additional costs are passed along to the customer, he added.
The solution is simple: don't flush wipes — any kind of wipe.
WES is working on several education campaigns to get people to stop flushing wipes, including one instructing new parents that baby wipes need to go in the trash.
"This is the community's collection system and we are all connected to it. When it is damaged, it puts the community's health at risk," Herdener said.
He grew up in this area and fished in the watershed; it is this that he is working to protect.
Herdener added, "People need to know that by the time we clean the water, it is cleaner than the Willamette. It's super clean, so that nobody gets sick."
For more information about WES, visit clackamas.us/wes.
The National Association of Clean Water Agencies is the leader in legislative, regulatory and legal advocacy on the full spectrum of clean-water issues, as well as a top technical resource for water management, sustainability and ecosystem protection interests.
ACWA's Toilets Are Not Trashcans national campaign currently is underway.
Last March, Cynthia A. Finley, director of regulatory affairs with NACWA, spoke to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in favor of House Bill 1239.
She is pushing for an updated Code of Practice, which specifies how the Do Not Flush logo should be used on all wipes. She also noted that stricter flushability guidelines for wipes manufacturers must be implemented.
"The COP specifies that baby wipes should never be labeled 'flushable,' allowing a clear 'don't flush baby wipes' message to be delivered to consumers by both the wastewater and wipes industries," she said.
For more information, visit nacwa.org.