The collection and treatment of domestic sewage and wastewater from businesses and homes, as well as run-off water from storms, is one of the most important factors when it comes to the health of any community. Many wastewater systems across the United States have been in place for a number of years and are in need of refurbishing. For the communities that support these systems and depend on them, it can be a daunting investment.

Stormwater management is another challenge in addition to aging wastewater system infrastructure. The increase in recent storm events and flooding will require additional investments in construction and engineering and put greater pressure on municipalities to control the risks, especially in cases where overflowing stormwater is mixed with wastewater.

In addition to these challenges of nature and time, there are many cultural changes that affect our wastewater systems. One of these is the popular use of nonwoven wipes (“flushable” wipes) which are becoming more frequently flushed into existing wastewater systems. This trend introduces products into a system for which it was not designed to manage.

The prevalent use of these “flushable” wipes is costing taxpayers a lot of extra money. In New York, for example, problems associated with nonwoven wipes and the sewer system’s inability to dispose of them cost more than $18M between 2010 and 2014.

In 2018, crews in Charleston, South Carolina, worked around the clock for three days straight to remove large masses of “flushable” wipes from their clogged sewer system. After removing literally thousands of pounds of baby wipes, the system was finally returned to working order.

“…We sent divers 80-90 feet deep into the wet well/raw sewage to search in complete darkness with their hands to find and identify the obstruction. As we expected, they came up with these large masses of wipes in their first two loads, with more to come,” Charleston Water tweeted.

As early as the mid-2000s, the wastewater industry has been battling the continued tendency of use of these disposable nonwoven wipes in sewer systems. While we have seen some progress made legally and through regulatory efforts, communities still bare the expense of clogs resulting from nonwoven wipes.

The first effort to combat the use of these wipes is education. Awareness that these nonwoven products do not dissolve like tissue paper, and therefore, should not be disposed of through sewer systems, is essential to making a change.

In addition to education, engineers are experimenting with new innovations to help pump stations better manage the process. For instance, a vortex impeller (pictured right) is designed specifically for easier handling of wipes without hacking or cutting, so that they may be taken out and disposed of at a landfill.

The nonwoven industry is also making strides to develop wipes that are more friendly to wastewater systems and the environment. And regulators are looking more closely at making sure disposable wipes are truly able to be handled by existing wastewater systems.

For those of us within the water and wastewater industry, there is no question that the problem of “flushable” wipes is one that is costly and destructive. The solution will take time and will take all parties working together. We must educate people about the damage these wipes cause. Manufacturers must work on better products that are more tolerated by systems, and we must continue to innovate our wastewater treatment facilities to handle new materials as they arise.