Flushable Wipes Problematic For Rhode Island Wastewater Treatment Plants

Jan 19, 2014

Those wet wipes marketed as “flushable” are causing major costly problems for sewer systems across Rhode Island.

Wet wipes marketed as "flushable" are not designed to break down as quickly as regular toilet paper breaks down. Instead, the wipes create expensive clogs and blockages when they bind with oils that are poured down drains.
Credit Courtesy of Warwick Sewer Authority

Managers at wastewater treatment facilities say just because the wipes are flushable doesn’t mean that they break down as easily and quickly as regular toilet paper. Instead they clog pump stations and sewer pipes, forcing treatment plants to spend time and money unclogging their systems.

Warwick Sewer Authority Superintendent Janine Burke says removing those wet wipe clogs takes man power, up to three employees at her facility.

“We recently had to have our board approve the purchase of a different type of impeller for the pump, basically one that shreds stuff, because we were going out there once a week [to remove clogged wipes],” Burke said.

This new piece of equipment cost the Warwick Sewer Authority nearly $12,000. Burke said the new piece of equipment merely deals with the symptom, but doesn't address the problem. She said it would be cheaper and more effective to keep these wet wipes out of sewer systems to begin with, but the wipes are becoming ubiquitous.

“We definitely do see more of that solid material that has to be removed before the wastewater can go on to be treated,” said Jamie Samons,  public affairs officer for the Narragansett Bay Commission. “That’s an added expense. It has the potential to cause blockages, which no one appreciates. So on the whole, we’re just not huge fans of the wipes.”

Flushable wipes collect with other culprits that don’t belong down the toilet, such feminine hygiene products, dental floss, and condoms. It’s particularly problematic when it binds with cooking oil that’s poured down drains.

Burke wants people to know your toilet is not a trash can. The only two things that should go down the toilet are your human waste and toilet paper.

Several managers at other Rhode Island wastewater treatment plants, such as in Bristol, Cranston, Narragansett, and Woonsocket, also share these wet wipe woes. It’s a problem across the nation and abroad, with the most extreme case reported in London.