Flushable wipes cause problematic backups at local sewage plants 

click to enlarge George Engel, pollution-control superintendent, displays pipe-clogging wipes his crews deal with. - CAMILA BERNAL/SPECIAL TO THE S.F EXAMINER
  • Camila Bernal/Special to The S.F Examiner
  • George Engel, pollution-control superintendent, displays pipe-clogging wipes his crews deal with.

Feeling "fresh and clean" after using sanitary wipes in the bathroom may put you in a good mood, but it's causing major problems for sewer and sanitation plants.

That's because the wipes don't dissolve the way they claim, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission officials say. Instead, the products cause major backups at such facilities, leaving workers who have to clean up the mess with soiled feelings.

It's a problem sewage treatment plants across the country have been dealing with for years. On Wednesday, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission took the opportunity to remind the public to flush only three items down the toilet.

"We call it the three P's: poop, paper and pee," said agency spokesman Tyrone Jue, standing in front of a steel bar covered in soiled rags that had been removed from flushed sewage. "And when we say paper, we mean toilet paper. Everything else should go in the trash."

Many products carrying the label flushable are simply misleading, Jue said.

"Anything going down the toilet is flushable because it goes down the toilet," Jue said. "It doesn't mean it's not going to clog your pipes."

The wipes, which have become increasingly popular over the years, include bathroom cleanse cloths, baby wipes, disinfectant cleaning wipes and sanitary hand wipes.

Bob Brand, a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark, which makes Cottonelle brand cleansing cloths and toilet paper, said if his company labels a product as flushable, it stands by that.

But Brand noted that Kimberly-Clark also sells other products that cannot be flushed.

"We're confident in that claim," Brand said. "However, not all wipes are flushable and we encourage consumers to read the package properly."

A story in Wednesday's USA Today highlighting the nationwide problem said consumers are attracted to the convenience of these products, which are becoming more popular. The article referenced a Consumer Reports study that tested numerous wipes that claimed to dissolve once flushed and found many of those products still hadn't done so after 30 minutes, while toilet paper disintegrated in eight seconds.

Because the products don't dissolve, they have to go somewhere, noted George Engel, superintendent of operations at the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant in San Francisco. And that usually means his crews are the ones who end up with them and have to get them into the trash.

Engel estimated that it costs his plant $160,000 each year to remove wipes, rags and other debris flushed down the toilet.

Any item that is not one of the three P's can clog up the plant.

"When there is a major surge of debris, we have to physically remove it," Jue said.

EDITOR'S NOTe

An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue.

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