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‘Non-toilet paper’ material on the rise in Boise-area sewers. That could be a problem

Women flushed $120,000 down three toilets, investigators say
Posted at 4:05 PM, Apr 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-11 18:05:58-04

BOISE, Idaho — This article was originally published by Hayley Harding of the Idaho Statesman.

Please, for the love of the sewer systems, don’t flush things that aren’t toilet paper.

It may be tempting — toilet paper has become a hot commodity as COVID-19 has spread throughout the country. Even though Idaho has one of the largest toilet paper factories in the world (and employees there are working to ship more loads), it can be hard to find at local stores. But flushing even those so-called “flushable” wipes can damage municipal water systems or even your own plumbing.

In Boise, city utility maintenance staffers are seeing people flushing a higher number of “non-toilet paper materials,” Colin Hickman, spokesman for the city Public Works Department, told the Statesman in an email. It hasn’t caused a problem yet, he said, but he asked that the public know that flushing things other than toilet paper can lead to “larger system issues.”

Toilet paper breaks apart in water, but other products, including the cleaning wipes or makeup-removing wipes you may occasionally toss in the toilet, are not designed to break down in the same way. One Canadian study found that even products that are labeled “flushable” may lead to clogs, in part because there is no universal definition on what flushable really means.

Sal Arreola, superintendent of Caldwell’s wastewater plant, reports seeing more of just about everything people shouldn’t flush — cut-up t-shirts, socks, paper towel, “feminine hygiene products being used as alternative paper,” and little loofahs you can find in packs of three at dollar stores.

“We have cutter pumps and shredder pumps that breaks down a lot, but some of the elastic material people are flushing gets wound around the rotor blades and plugs them up,” Arreola said in a phone interview. “My operators go out there, kill the power, pull the pumps, disassemble the pumps. They’re getting to be like IndyCar drivers, where they can pull the pump apart, take stuff out and put it back together faster than ever.”

That fix buys them another 12 to 16 hours, Arreola said, until teams have to go back in and do it again.

The city of Nampa has started asking residents on social media not to flush paper towels or napkins. Amy Bowman, Nampa city spokeswoman, said the city has not seen an uptick in nonflushable materials but is monitoring closely.

Meridian hasn’t seen any problems yet either, but officials there are keeping an eye on it, Laurelei McVey, deputy director of utility operations for the public works department, said in an email. Like Nampa, Meridian has sent out messages encouraging people not to flush things that won’t break down properly in the pipe system.

The city encourages people to remember what McVey called the “four Ps” — pee, poo, (toilet) paper and puke — to go into drains, but nothing else, as the sewer system is not designed to be able to handle wipes, paper towels or rags.

She also encourages people to be mindful of what they put down their drains. People should keep fat, oil, grease and grit out of the pipes, McVey said, or they could risk a clog.

“With people home all day, there is a lot more cooking and baking,” she said. Fats, oil and grit “should be thrown in the trash and kept out of the drain.”

Before the new coronavirus started to spread, Arreola said, the biggest clog culprits of were generally children throwing toys or parents’ wallets into the toilet to see what happens. There are fewer toys coming through, but that still doesn’t mean that towels or cleaning wipes are good to go.

If you’ve run out of toilet paper, there are other options. Americans are starting to buy bidets, which are common in other parts of the world, in higher numbers. Arreola suggested that if you’re going to turn to fabric, newspaper or other material, simply bag it up and let it go to the landfill so water-treatment teams don’t have to come into contact with it in an already “highly infectious environment.”

The upside of the people staying at home, he said? Caldwell is seeing fewer men’s class rings and other trinkets getting flushed.

“Usually we see them around this time of year, as the proms happen and the kids break up,” Arreola said. “Looks like they’re sticking together a little longer this year.”