Baby wipes bedevil Edgartown wastewater facility

Clogs from baby wipes and other non-dispersable materials are an increasing problem at the Edgartown wastewater plant. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Baby wipes and dental floss can be useful in the bathroom, but these and other non-woven products, many of which are labeled “flushable,” are causing big headaches at wastewater facilities worldwide. The predicament is even more acute on the Island, where limited sewage and aging septic systems are cited as a major cause of the rapidly declining health of Island water bodies.

David Thompson, Facilities Manager at the Edgartown Waste Water Treatment Facility (EWWT), told The Times that the EWWT, which has the Island’s only septic receiving station, has been beset by clogs directly attributable to non-dispersing products.

“People are flushing baby wipes, make-up wipes, dental floss, Swiffer mop heads, and it’s costing us big money,” he said.

“These non-dispersing products don’t sink to the bottom and decay. They float on the top and cause problems,” he said. “If you have this raft of stuff inside a pump, the float isn’t going to operate properly because it won’t know when to turn on. Or the pump will turn on and not get the signal to turn off and the pump will burn out.”

Mr. Thompson said that during periods of elevated flow, non-dispersing material also sticks in bends in sewer pipes, then fats and greases congeal on them, creating a mass that traps more wipes in a vicious cycle. “Take one of those wipes and you can probably tear it apart with your hands. Then twist it into a rope, and you can get a couple of people can’t tear it apart.”

The EWWT is the only septic receiving station on the Island, so the impact of Islanders flushing non-dispersing materials is particularly severe.

“One baby, five diaper changes a day, times 365, for two years, is enough to make a septic fail,” Mr. Thompson said. “When failing septics get pumped out, all those wipes end up in my receiving machine. Multiply that by a couple thousand and that’s what we’re dealing with. When it gets packed in, I can’t even drive a chisel or screwdriver into it,”

The problem is compounding because adult consumption of baby wipes has tripled in the past decade, according to manufacturer Kimberly-Clark.

Tissue issues

A recent Consumer Reports study showed that a sheet of regular toilet paper falls apart in about eight seconds in swirled water, whereas a “disposable” wipe remained unchanged after 30 minutes. The majority of baby wipes on the market that are labeled “flushable,” are non-dispersing, according to Mr. Thompson.

The city of Portland, Maine, tried to address the issue with a series of humorous public service announcements, “What the Flush?”

The problem made international headlines in London in 2013 when London sewer officials investigated a rash of complaints from customers unable to flush their toilets, and subsequently found a 15-ton “fatberg,” the size of a double decker bus, composed of nonwoven fabrics balled up with fats, oils, and grease. In Canada, the Associated Press reported in November 2013 that flushed wipes cost municipal sewage treatment plants about $250 million per year. According to an article in New York magazine, an employee in the city’s department of environmental protection estimates the cost of clearing lines clogged with non-woven products at $18 million a year, not including staff overtime and damaged equipment costs.

Mr. Thompson said he knows of only one company that sells dispersing baby wipes, Sellars Wipers and Sorbents, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“We have to get the word out,” Mr. Thompson said. “Just because a package reads ‘flushable’ it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If people care about their plumbing, about their septic system, about their sewer bills or about the environment, they have to start making some changes.”