Sierra Sun: Out of toilet paper? Don’t flush the other stuff.

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a new class of people: toilet paper hoarders. Hoarders, you know who you are. But did you know you’re contributing to an impending sewage crisis?

TP shortages are driving many citizens to dispose of “flushable” wipes, baby wipes, napkins and even paper towels in toilets. These items are clogging already overloaded sewer pipes.

Officials in Redding, Calif., recently begged residents to stop flushing shredded T-shirts. (Never underestimate the ingenuity of a desperate American.) People are flushing not only TP substitutes, but also disinfectant wipes used to prevent the virus from spreading.

All across the country, panicked sewer managers are pleading with residents to stop flushing anything that is not toilet paper. Likewise, local wastewater treatment officials are urging Utahns not to flush all this “other stuff.”

Jill Jones, general manager for the Central Davis Sewer District, reports that, while her district hasn’t seen increased problems yet, the Central Valley District serving Salt Lake has already “seen an increase in wet wipes” that threaten to clog sewers. Even though Park City, vacated by tourists, is producing dramatically less sewage, a lot more wipes are appearing in the city’s sewage.

To prevent sewage from backing up into people’s homes, local sewer districts are checking pumping stations more often for clogs.

What kind of clogs are we talking about? When people flush items that don’t disintegrate, they combine with congealed fat (think bacon grease, also improperly poured down the drain) to form “fatbergs” — massive, disgusting mounds that resemble icebergs but are made up of wipes, paper towels, fat and other solids. (Trying too long to visualize a fatberg may be hazardous to your emotional well-being.)

These fatbergs are both difficult and costly to remove. In South Carolina, the Charleston Water Company had to send scuba divers 80 feet to 90 feet deep into raw sewage to remove blockages by hand!

The New York City sewer system spends an estimated $19 million a year removing fatbergs. Across Utah, backups caused by wipes cost roughly $3 million — and that is before the bigger problems we’re creating right now!

In addition to unnecessary expense, sewer overflows can dump thousands of gallons of sewage into streams and creeks or, heaven forbid, back up into your basement.

It’s not enough that wipes make it down the toilet, or even through your home’s pipes. Wipes that don’t disintegrate in the sewer system clog public sewer lines, pumping stations that move the sewage, and sewer treatment plants.

Even wipes marketed as “flushable” should not be flushed. Using standards developed by UK water scientists, my science fair project (when there was still a science fair) tested how well wipes — including “flushable wipes” — dissolve. Put simply, they flunked.

Only two of the 14 brands of “flushable” wipes tested came even close to passing the dissolvability tests. All other brands failed miserably. Baby wipes, disinfectant wipes and paper towels essentially remained whole but, as expected, toilet paper passed with flying colors.

My project demonstrates why flushing TP alternatives is so problematic. Right now, we need every public utility system to run smoothly so resources can be used to fight a deadly pandemic. Nobody ever needs sewage backing up into their home or yard, but COVID-19 means calling a plumber compromises vital social distancing measures.

Hoarders, now is the time to share. A small kindness to a neighbor may well be a big kindness to your local sewer system.

And for households temporarily TP free, this does not mean you can’t find a suitable alternative. Putting wipes in the trash is perfectly acceptable — just don’t flush them down the toilet!

Remember #WipesClogPipes. And when you’re out of toilet paper? #DontFlushtheOtherStuff.

Sierra Sun

Sierra Sun is a seventh grade amateur scientist and an officer of the Envision Utah Youth Council.