Due to a flood of sanitary wipes at the city’s three Water Pollution Control Plants and 19 pumping stations, we are calling on residents to stop flushing anything other than toilet paper along with bathroom waste.
In recent years, you may have seen campaigns, like the video below, from cities and utilities designed to counter the erroneous belief that bathroom and sanitizing wipes are flushable:
But the COVID-19 emergency has resulted in an especially dramatic increase in flushed wipes—and an increased potential for clogged pipes and damaged infrastructure.
“We understand people want to be safe and are using more wipes these days but flushing any wipe or any material other than toilet paper can cause serious issues in homes and at our plants,” says Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Randy E. Hayman. “These materials can create serious problems the moment you flush them. They clog pipes at homes, in the street, and at our facilities. We care about our customers and do not want people to endure the high cost and inconvenience of plumbing repairs, especially during this time.”
“We strongly recommend against flushing anything but toilet paper. Even wipes sold as ‘flushable’ often don’t have the science or regulations to back up that claim, so it’s a pricey gamble,” Hayman added. “If you use wipes for your hands or anything else, please toss them in the trash and dispose of them like you would other household waste. It may seem like a small thing, but it can have a big impact at a time when we need everyone to work together.”
PWD experts have found that in addition to bathroom and sanitizing wipes, baby wipes, surface cleaning wipes, and paper towels all cause infrastructure and plumbing problems.
Other commonly flushed items that can cause issues are prophylactics, tampons and other feminine hygiene products, tooth floss, and cigarette butts.
Wipes and Your Home Plumbing
Wipes, whether made from natural or synthetic materials, cause problems because they do not instantly dissolve like toilet paper. In homes, wipes and toilet paper can cause interior pipes to clog. Plumbers and Water Department inspectors also encounter customer-owned sewer laterals, the pipe connecting buildings to City sewers, jammed with wipes.
This can cause sewage to back-up into homes or the street. Sewer lateral repairs can cost you upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.
A property found to have a sewage leak or damage from a wipe-clogged sewer lateral may also receive a Notice of Defect, which provides a specified window of time, based on the severity and impact of the defect, to make repairs before customers face water shutoff. Currently, only properties creating safety and health hazards are being shut off.
Remember:If you have an issue caused by wipes, you must hire a private licensed plumber to make repairs. We cannot unclog your pipes.
Why Wipes Are an Infrastructure Nightmare
Once in the sewer system, wipes act like magnets for cooled fat and grease (also substances to keep out of plumbing at all costs) and can snowball into large blockages commonly referred to as “fatbergs” because of their size. Fatbergs can require major emergency sewer repairs and close streets for extended periods. They are a significant expense and headache for cities across the globe, with fatbergs weighing tons routinely making headlines.
At PWD pumping stations, operators are working to maintain efficient operations as pumps and other equipment work overtime to pull the wipes through. The impacts are being felt at sites across the city:
- 13 Sanitary pump stations impacted by wipes
- 3 Combined sewer stations impacted by flushed wipes and discarded gloves, masks, and other litter
- 3 Stormwater stations impacted by litter like gloves and masks
Recent inspections have found that materials slowing pumps and requiring stoppages to remove clogs are primarily sanitary wipes. Plant managers are adjusting operations to account for the surge in wipes and are conducting additional machinery inspections to prevent clogged pumps when possible.
Once in the plant, wipes and other non-organic materials have to be mechanically collected by bar screens, transported by conveyor belt to dumpsters, and are then taken to a drying pad.
After drying, they are taken by truck to a central location, where they are mixed with lime and hauled to a landfill for disposal. Here is a photo of litter on the "grit pad," where drying takes place:
COVID-19 Litter Spike
Water Department officials are also joining other City departments to sound the alarm about rubber gloves and masks being discarded on sidewalks.
These items are easily washed into the sewer system by rain and can either end up in local waterways or at treatment plants.
"We are all making many changes to deal with this health crisis, but we need to work together to avoid more problems with the infrastructure we depend on," says Commissioner Hayman. "Philadelphians have been expressing tremendous gratitude for the services we provide. But we need them to work with us. We can get through this together, and not flushing wipes or littering are really simple ways to help your city and the environment."
More on COVID-19 Response
To remind people that tap water is safe to drink and detail other impacts to our services, we have put our updates on a COVID-19 page. Stay safe, and remember that our hotline is still open for emergencies. Just call (215) 685-6300.