‘Flushable’ wipes causing $500K Pottstown sewer fix

Increasingly popular bathroom wipes, thick, pre-moistened towelettes that are advertised as flushable, are creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation. 

POTTSTOWN — As the virus-driven scarcity of disinfectant wipes captures our attention, there is one place they are not as scarce as they should be — in area sewer systems.

In Pottstown's latest alert, Borough Manager Justin Keller reminded residents that these wipes, no matter what the label says, are not "flushable."

Flushing them will only cause problems in your home's sewer system, or beyond, at the system that serves the entire area.

"As a reminder, do not flush anything but human waste and toilet paper down the toilet. Other items will clog the sanitary sewer and cause problems in your home, business, and sewer mains," according to the borough's alert.

Residents are advised not to flush things such as:

  • Wipes
  • Paper towels, napkins, and tissues
  • Diapers
  • Feminine hygiene products, etc.

The wipes, which do not decompose quickly like toilet paper, "re-weave themselves and attach themselves to everything," said Brent Wagner, the borough's utilities director.

Sewer Screen

The new screen at the Pottstown Wastewater Treatment plant, made necessary by people flushing wipes down the toilet, was unloaded Wednesday.

"They can cling together and weigh as much as a couple hundred pounds, they're huge frags," Wagner warned.

As he spoke on his mobile phone Wednesday, "I am right now in the bobcat installing our new screens" as the sewer plant.

The screens are a half-million-dollar project made necessary at the plant to prevent the wipes from penetrating further into the machinery.

"They can latch onto our pumps and really gum up the works," he said.

With more people staying in their homes, the borough's system has the potential to be seeing a higher volume of sewage as well, so anything that impedes the operation of the treatment plan can create a health risk.

We don't need any more of those.

Just ask the folks from Pennsylvania American Water.

Even wipes labeled as “flushable” or “biodegradable” can cause backups for sewer utilities and headaches for homeowners, according to a release issued by the state's largest investor-owned water utility. 

“Flushing or dumping the wrong things down the drain can cause problems in your local sewer system and cause blockages in your own home,” said Jim Gable, senior manager of southeast operations for Pennsylvania American Water, which provides water and/or wastewater services to approximately 2.4 million people.

In 2019, Pennsylvania American Water purchased the sewage treatment plant in Exeter for $93.5 million. 

In January, it signed an agreement to purchase the sewer system in Royersford Borough for $13 million.

It is also one of two companies that have expressed an interest in purchasing the sewer system in Upper Pottsgrove Township.

In April, Forbes magazine reported on a study of 101 different wipes "and not one of them passed a flushability test. Instead, the wipes failed to fall apart or disperse safely in tests. In other words, cleansing and diaper wipes shouldn't be flushed (even if they're labeled as 'flushable') because they'll clog sewer systems, according to the first-ever study by Ryerson University in Ontario," Forbes reported.

Twenty-three of the wipes tested were labeled as "flushable" by the manufacturer.

"Results showed that not one single wipe was able to fall apart or disperse safely through the sewer system test, which can negatively impact household plumbing, municipal sewage infrastructure, and consequently, the environment," according to a press release on the study.

“This research confirms conclusively what those of us in the industry already knew ― that single-use wipes, including cleansing and diaper wipes, cannot be safely flushed, even those labeled as ‘flushable,’” report lead Barry Orr said in the release.

And often, the person who pays the price is you.

“Many sewer blockages occur between your house and our sewer main, where the property owner is responsible for correcting and paying for the repair. During this already stressful time, we want to help our customers avoid blockages that could create costly plumbing emergencies,” Gable said in the release.

Gable added that improper disposal can also cause problems in the local sewer system. 

“We provide an essential service, so please help us out by putting wipes, paper towels and other products in the trash where they belong, not in your sewer system where they can damage our equipment and cause blockages.”

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