Flushable Wipes Causing “Fatbergs” In City Sewer Systems

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

To disinfect surfaces during the pandemic, Americans have been using more sanitary wipes than ever before. In the twelve months through late January, sanitary wipe purchases have increased by a whopping 75%. 

But while these wipes are often labeled “flushable” by manufacturers, they are anything but and are clogging municipal sewer systems around the country. When too many wipes are flushed down the toilet, they can build up in sewers along with cooking fat poured down the drain, creating blockages called “fatbergs.” These fatbergs have been cropping up with increasing regularity across the U.S., causing headaches for municipalwater management agencies. 

Why This Matters: Fatbergs are expensive and difficult to remove — U.S. municipalities spend at least $1 billion annually on getting rid of blockages from a buildup of wipes. These fatbergs can be incredibly large: one under London was the size of a double-decker bus. 

They can also be dangerous. In 2017, a fatberg in Baltimore resulted in a sewage overflow. These overflows can cause toxic human and industrial waste to spill into bodies of water nearby, contaminating drinking water and degrading aquatic ecosystems. What’s more, is that this waste problem is avoidable, better education and information for consumers as well as ensuring that manufacturers bear responsibility for their products could help prevent fatbergs.

A Messy Situation:

This issue didn’t start with the pandemic — Americans had already been flushing too many wipes into the sewers. But the problem has intensified since stay-at-home orders have been put in place across the country. 

Charleston filed a lawsuit against wipe manufacturers and retailers for falsely persuading the public that these wipes are flushable. Washington state passed a similar bill last year, which forced manufacturers to label their packages with “do not flush” warnings. Other states have followed suit, introducing bills that could require these labels as well. 

Water resource management experts hope that the issue will improve as people go back to work. In the meantime, cities like New York and Seattle have been calling on residents to “Trash it. Don’t flush it.”

 

Up Next

One Cool Thing: Gold Medal in Recycling

One Cool Thing: Gold Medal in Recycling

While an Olympic medal is special in its own right, the ones being handed out at the Tokyo 2020 games come with a little extra magic. After Tokyo won its bid to host the games, the Tokyo Medal Project, called on the Japanese people to donate their old recycled old electronic gadgets such as smartphones […]

Continue Reading 132 words
New Federal Bills Target Food Waste

New Federal Bills Target Food Waste

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer A new series of bills have been introduced in Congress that aim to quell food waste. These bills — the Zero Food Waste Act, and the Cultivating Organic Matter through the Promotion of Sustainable Techniques Act (COMPOST) —will reduce food waste and in turn help create jobs, slow climate […]

Continue Reading 552 words
One Cool Thing: Goats in the City

One Cool Thing: Goats in the City


Two dozen goats were unleashed in Manhattan’s Riverside park last week to get to work chomping down on invasive weeds. Crowds of spectators went to the park Wednesday to witness the ceremonial “running of the goats,” as the animals were released into the area, where they enjoyed a multi-course meal of Japanese knotweed, porcelain berry, multiflora rose, and even […]

Continue Reading 199 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.