Sanitary district: Keep wet wipes out of sewers

Sanitary district: Keep wet wipes out of sewers

URBANA — "Flushable" wet wipes for bathroom use are being advertised as "quite an interesting addition to your dry routine."

But local sanitary district officials say consumers should keep the wipes out of the sewers by not flushing them down toilets — or risk a clogged sanitary line.

Urbana Champaign Sanitary District officials say the wipes can cause clogs in homeowners' sanitary sewer laterals. And while the maker of one popular bathroom wipe says its product is safe to flush, cities across the country have documented expenses in excess of $1 million fixing clogs in large sewers caused by the newly popular wipes, according to a wastewater association.

"It's a problem that starts at the house lateral because they're so much smaller," said Jackie Christensen, director of operations for the local sanitary district.

As the product has become more popular, Christensen said, sanitary district officials believe the problems have become more frequent. They are listing the wipes right up there with other items they recommend against flushing or pouring down the drain: facial tissue, cotton swabs, paper towels and grease, for example.

"There are instances where material can get from the house into the collector sewers or in the interceptors and mix with other materials that are already in there, like grease, and cause larger blockages," Christensen said.

John Pastore, the executive director of the Southern California Alliance of Publicly Owned Treatment Works, has begun compiling a national database of instances where a "flushable" item has caused blockages in sewer systems.

Pastore said he is in the very early stages of compiling the list, but people have submitted 24 reports documenting 40 instances from locations all over the United States.

The total reported maintenance cost in those 40 instances is $13,390, Pastore said, but he added that there are agencies everywhere that have annual maintenance costs in the six-figure dollar amounts to deal with blockages caused by supposedly flushable items.

Like paper towels and facial tissue, wet wipes do not break down much when they are flushed, said Bruce Rabe, lab director for the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District. Toilet paper fibers are not interwoven, so it falls apart fairly easily when it is stirred in water.

But the other paper items are made to not fall apart when customers use them — and they don't. When they make it through the sewer system and arrive at the sanitary district, they are pretty well intact.

"All that's flushable, but it might end up clogging your sewer," Rabe said.

The Kimberly-Clark Corp., the maker of Cottonelle Flushable Wet Wipes, refutes those claims. Cottonelle has been advertising its product in its "talk about your bum" commercials and stands by its flushable claim.

"We've made every effort to be transparent in our testing and how our products perform in these tests," said Kimberly-Clark spokesman Eric Bruner.

He said 90 percent of the material pulled out of sewers is not labeled as flushable — and, therefore, is not meant to be flushed.

He also pointed out that there are a wide range of wet wipes — baby wipes, feminine hygiene products and household cleaners — that are not labeled as flushable and not advertised as such, even though they may appear similar to wet wipes that are advertised as flushable. That includes some Kimberly-Clark products.

Bruner said he does not know whether there are products made by other manufacturers who have mislabeled their wipes as flushable.

But the Cottonelle Wet Wipes, which have been the source of some of the attention following the advertising campaign, break down within three hours of being flushed, Bruner said. They have passed stringent industry tests and have earned their "flushable" label, he said, and videos of those tests are available on the Kimberly-Clark Corp. website at

Bruner said manufacturers should work with municipal wastewater agencies to educate consumers about what can and cannot go down the toilet. He said consumers should always read the label before they flush.

"We understand the importance of flushing only stuff that is meant to be flushed," he said.

When they get to the water treatment plant, paper items are caught by fine screens that sift wastewater from large objects. Those screens are cleared, and the material goes to the landfill.

But that is assuming the intact paper items make it to the treatment plant in the first place.

"That's one of the things our maintenance crew does a lot: pull paper or plastic out of pumping equipment," Rabe said.

Christensen said district officials expect the wipes will lead to problems.

"We believe so," Christensen said. "Nationally, the instance is a lot of municipalities are seeing it. There's been a lot of talk from the national group."

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies represents about 300 wastewater agencies and has been pushing an educational campaign to stop the wipes from ending up in sewers.

Christensen said education is the best tool locally, too, but the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District could probably do a better job.

"We've been a little bit behind on the curve," Christensen said. "We've really just started."

The district does not have any specific plans for that push yet, she said, but it may be coming. The same goes for grease and oil — draining it with hot water may send it out of your sewer lateral, she said, but it congeals as soon as it gets to the colder collector pipe down the line.

"We probably need to do better on education for the flushable items, and also fats, oil and grease," she said.

With the clean water association's support, the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry is proposing a seven-step test that a product must pass before it is labeled as "flushable," and the fabrics group also says that non-flushable items should be labeled with a "Do Not Flush" logo, according to its website.

Rabe, however, said the message is clear, and it really boils down to one thing:

"Just, basically, put water and what you do in the bathroom down the drain."

To flush or not to flush

Toilet paper

Flushable — nonwoven fibers quickly fall apart in water.

Facial tissue

Not flushable — woven fibers do not break down.

Paper towel

Not flushable — woven fibers do not break down.

Wet wipe

Not flushable — woven fibers do not break down.

Toilet cleaner

Semi-flushable — starts to break down after several hours.

Toys and plastics

Not flushable — will clog sewer equipment.

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