Pandemic’s Ripple Effect Hits Sewer Systems

When the coronavirus pandemic began there was one news story that seemed to dominate headlines across the nation: Toilet paper shortages. By mid-March, as the seriousness of the virus became clear and potential quarantine timelines became less-so, finding a package of toilet paper on a grocery run became a noteworthy accomplishment. U.S. sales of toilet paper shot up 213% for the one-week period ending March 14 in comparison to the same week a year before, according to Nielsen market tracking. Seemingly trivial, the panic to purchase (and in some cases hoard) toilet paper has caused massive damages to sewer systems across the nation.

      

How does increased demand for toilet paper and the subsequent empty shelves cause sewer system damages? In the absence of toilet paper, people resort to using alternatives like paper towels, facial tissue, sanitary wipes, and even t-shirts to clean themselves. While these options appear to at least temporarily solve the problem, issues occur when it comes to disposal. Only toilet paper is designed to be flushed down the toilet.

BUILT TO FAIL

Toilet paper is uniquely engineered to quickly break down for the safety of sewage and septic systems. The paper used has shorter fibers than facial tissue or paper towel, speeding up decomposition to avoid compaction in the drain lines. On contact with water, toilet paper typically dissolves in anywhere from one to four minutes, allowing it to move swiftly through the wastewater infrastructure.

Paper towels, facial tissue, and sanitary wipes, on the other hand, break down at a significantly slower rate. These intact towels, tissues, and wipes physically snag on any existing debris in the pipes, causing a pile-up and eventual clog. Even sanitary wipes labeled and advertised as “flushable” are not recommended for flushing. As they travel further down the sewer system, they gum up pumps designed to move millions of gallons of wastewater a day. Combining with fats, oils, and grease, wipes can create “fatbergs”, congealed sewer system masses.

PERSONAL AND INFRASTRUCTURAL CONSEQUENCES

Water infrastructure is everyone’s business. It’s the only major utility required to live, and the quality and consistency of its service affects people’s wellbeing. It is especially crucial to keep that in mind today as we all deal with the effects of COVID- 19. On a more analytical level, sewage backups can cost homeowners tens of thousands of dollars. Clogs, backups, and pump maintenance cost cities and taxpayer money to repair. Furthermore, there are environmental consequences to flushing anything other than toilet paper. Equipment failure at wastewater treatment plants can impair the process of discharging clean water into the environment.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Cities across the nation have resorted to public service announcements on social media to get the word out about proper and improper materials for flushing. The need for infrastructure education won’t end when the coronavirus fades. What we can hope for is a more well-informed public and a further prepared municipal system.

“Please remember: Toilets are not trash cans,” read a recent joint public service announcement by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “Only the three Ps — pee, poo and (toilet) paper — belong in the toilet.”

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