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.”

 

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