The products’ use around the country have surged over the past decade and become even more popular during the coronavirus pandemic. But utilities say the wipes congeal with grease and other cooking fats that are also sent improperly through sewer systems, creating a waste combination that blocks pumps and pipes and become a major cause of sewer backups and overflows into waterways. A National Association of Clean Water Agencies report from last year estimates that wipes are causing $441 million in additional operational costs each year for wastewater utilities nationwide, according to AL.com.
The utilities are blaming the wipes for clogging pipes and causing backups of raw sewage overflow. “There is no such thing as a flushable wipe. There never has been such thing as a flushable wipe,” Jessica Walker, spokesperson for the city of Fairhope, which operates its own municipal sewer system, told AL.com. In Alabama, utility operators continuously divert their workforce to the cleanup of clogged pumps, and wipes are often blamed. Some utility operators say the effort leads to higher expenses that are often passed along to the consumer in the form of higher sewer and water bills.
“It’s a utility industry-wide problem,” said Samantha Coppels, with Daphne Utilities. Alabama utility operators are relying on pamphlets, banners and bill inserts to educate the public.
In Alexander City, Sewer Director John McWhorter said the outreach and an “aggressive preventive maintenance” program helped with reducing sanitary sewer overflows in the Tallapoosa County city of 14,800 residents. Mark Berte, executive director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation — which oversees the Utilities United Initiative that includes 20 water and sewer utilities in south Alabama — told AL.com that education about flushable wipes will continue to be his organization’s primary focus. He said the aim is to convince enough people to forgo purchasing flushable wipes so that there is less demand for the products. “We’re trying to educate those in this state not to spend money on flushable wipes because they cost a lot more in the long run,” Berte said. “If no one buys them, they won’t sell them anymore. Toilet paper is the only thing that should go into the toilets.”
A class action lawsuit has been filed in South Carolina seeking to prohibit wipes from being marketed as “flushable” or safe for a sewer system until the companies that manufacture and sell the products can prove they disintegrate like normal toilet paper.
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