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Hold it! Don't Flush Those Wipes or You Could Cause a Big Mess

by Matt Berry on April 20, 2020

As stores across the country run out of toilet paper due to panic buying and hoarding, and shelter-in-place orders keep people in their homes more than normal, some are using alternative products in the bathroom.

But wastewater experts are saying to hold it; don’t flush anything that isn’t toilet paper.

Wastewater departments in Ohio, California, Texas, Missouri and other states are experiencing clogged up sewage systems as residents send paper towels, facial tissues, paper napkins, baby wipes, t-shirts and disinfecting wipes down the drain.

Even toilet wipes that are labeled “flushable” should be put in the trash and not the bowl.

“Items other than toilet paper should not be flushed because they can cause clogs and damage to wastewater collection systems and treatment facilities,” Kelly Barron-Holcomb, program manager for Hocking College’s Water and Wastewater Management program, said.

Some products, like “flushable” wipes, have very small amounts of plastic in them to make them durable, but that durability prevents them from breaking down.

“It’s not just items with plastics,” Jeff Arnold, the retired Athens city wastewater plant manager, said.

“Cotton doesn’t break down quickly either, which is why it’s a great fabric, but it shouldn’t be flushed,” Arnold said. “Many tampons include cotton, which causes a problem when they’re flushed too.”

The items that don’t break down travel through the sewer system binding with fats, oils and grease to create clogs in sewer lines, at lift stations, at treatment plants and even in the plumbing in your own home.

Barron-Holcomb said those clogs could damage equipment in the wastewater system, and it could be harmful to the “chemical and/or biological stability of treatment processes” at the plant. Clogs could also cause “raw sewage overflow, backup or discharge of effluent” that don’t meet standards allowed by regulations, potentially causing environmental damage.

Even if you’re not on a municipal sewage system, Barron-Holcomb says you need to be careful of what you flush. The items you flush can still clog the sewer lines or damage equipment in your personal septic system.

“Being self-quarantined at home can be tough,” Walter E. Marlowe, executive director of the Water Environment Federation, said in a post on the organization’s website. “Being self-quarantined at home with a backed-up sewer is much, much worse.”

About Hocking College’s Water and Wastewater Management Program

Treating wastewater is crucial to the protection of public health and the environment, and topics like this and many more are covered in Hocking College’s Water and Wastewater Management Program.

The professionals who oversee and work on the systems that carry water to and from your home are Water and Wastewater Operators. The two-year program prepares students to start their career in water and wastewater systems and offers online continuing education opportunities for current operators. All of the program-specific courses are taken online. General education courses can be taken online or in person. Students in the program will learn to:

  • Calculate water/wastewater flow rates, storage, detention times, volumes, hydraulics, chemical dosages and electrical applications.
  • Examine and compare federal and state laws and regulations that are applicable to the industry.
  • Assess and apply health, safety, emergency planning and security practices and procedures to evaluate specific working environments within the water/wastewater treatment fields.
  • Demonstrate skill in water/wastewater sampling and analysis techniques.
  • wastewater-treatment-500Analyze and evaluate a variety of water/wastewater treatment processes as well as applicable operation, maintenance and laboratory procedures.
  • Explain a variety of distribution and collection system designs, operations and maintenance.
  • Apply the scientific principles behind water resources management to the design of water/wastewater treatment strategies.

The program offers students flexibility with the ability to take the entire program online. Students who complete the program will be prepared to sit for the Operator Certification Exam and apply for their Ohio Environmental Protection Agency certification.

For more information about Hocking College’s Water and Wastewater Management program, contact Program Manager Kelly Barron-Holcomb by email at barron-holcombk@hocking.edu or by phone at 740-753-6275.

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