California’s sewers were built to handle pee, poo and toilet paper, but increasingly they’re being called upon to carry an ever-growing array of plastics and trash people flush down the toilet. Wastewater systems across California, and around the world, are becoming solid waste debris conveyance systems. Condoms, feminine hygiene products, baby wipes, cleaning wipes, floss, mop heads and more are getting flushed when they should really go in the trash can.
Sewers were never designed or built to handle solid waste and the growing waves of trash are creating a horrible, costly mess for wastewater professionals to clean-up. Particularly the wipes. Baby wipes are basically single-use plastic squares.
Can we ever get the public to stop flushing trash?
We checked in with Chad Davisson, the General Manager of Ironhouse Sanitary District in eastern Contract Costa County. He and his team are getting wipes problems under control with technology, monitoring, operational changes and widespread public outreach.
Then the pandemic hit, a TP shortage occurred and the amount of trash entering their sewer system spiked to unprecedented levels.
We asked Chad how they dealt with these new challenges and what he sees as the future of wipes.
When did your agency first encounter wipes clogging things up?
Like many sewer agencies the impact of wipes on collection system and pump stations, and the plant have been an issue throughout my entire 30+ year career.
At Ironhouse Sanitary District, we’re a relatively flat area out in the Sacramento Delta, so we have 33 sewer lift stations. Wipes are a reality that we have faced and deal with wipes as far back as we’ve been a district that’s been pumping and conveying wastewater.
We have crews that go out on a regularly scheduled basis to pull open pumps and tear out all the balls of rags and wipes, it’s just a reality for several years.
I think there’s some fundamental flaws in how wipes are marketed, because what they define as okay to flush just means it’s going to make it through your toilet and out of your house successfully. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to wreak havoc downstream once it reaches the public sewer system.
From a consumer’s perspective, they may feel that they are doing everything exactly as they should, they’re using flushable wipes. But in reality, we need to continue educating people so they understand just because it doesn’t plug-up your toilet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t plug up a pump downstream.
Have any of your pump stations been clogging frequently?
We have some clogging far more than what they are supposed. Pump stations are not supposed to clog.
We had to add different technologies to grind up the wipes and paper material at some of the worst stations. Some stations we have clean weekly, others we monitor 24/7.
When we see flows less than what we’re anticipating we know that it’s because it’s got rags wrapped around the pump impeller. On a daily basis we go around our service area address ragging issues.
When the pandemic hit, what happened to the Ironhouse system in March and April? We heard your region had a toilet paper shortage.
We’ve seen significant impacts on our system from wipes and other really inappropriate things that have been flushed.
I think two things happened simultaneously as a result of this public health crisis. One is that people were home because they are sheltering in place, so you had more people at home, so our entire flow patterns have changed over the last few months.
Second, those people are at home and they have a heightened level of sanitary practices, so they’re using wipes for counters and personal hygiene is stepped up because they want to stay healthy, so they’re flushing all these things.
They’re flushing wipes that they’re using to wipe down their counters, they’re flushing wipes, so there’s this unprecedented level of sanitary and disinfecting going on, and it’s happening with people in their homes, simultaneously with an unprecedented amount of people that are sheltered in their homes.
Everybody’s so focused on staying healthy that the last thing on people’s mind is the health of the sewer system.
What kind of technologies or tactics have you tried – grinders, screens or new pumps?
We’re trying all of them. We’ve looked at how to better manage flows. We’ve got different, more robust pumps. We’ve installed grinders.
We also complete capital improvement projects to fix lines where there’s not enough slope, or a sag in an old line and rags are collecting. We replace those as we can.
We tailored our entire sewer maintenance program around hot spots and where maintenance is needed. We have areas with different priorities and cleaning frequencies, because if we can get the wipes out using our combo truck before they get to the lift stations, then that’s the best strategy we have.
How as the increase in debris in the sewers impacted your system?
We’ve had to make upgrades to our treatment plant because we have a very high-tech treatment facility called a membrane bioreactor. It produces, for all intents and purposes, drinking water quality effluent. We have to be really careful to keep trash and debris out of the plan, because we don’t want anything damaging the membrane process, it’s very high-tech.
We have lots of preliminary and headworks screening to remove debris.
We also made some significant operational changes as the amount of wipes increased. All of the wastewater comes into the plant and enters our influent pump station, so wastewater gets pumped through the plant.
We changed our pump settings to allow that station to act as a clarifier of sorts, so we can capture as much debris as possible and take the burden off the headwork screens.
We capture wipes inside the pump station by allowing them to either float to the top and create a matte with the grease, or the debris settles to the bottom. We have our sewer collections crew vac truck go and actually pump out all of that captured debris out of the wet well.
What that means is we’ve got a crew that already has a heightened workload, now we have to go and clean debris out every two weeks. We remove about 40 or 50 cubic yards of rags and wipes.
We’ve gotten creative to stop wipes, and thankfully I have an amazing team of operations and collections professionals.
My collections superintendent just got CWEA supervisor of the year and our plant operations staff are super innovative. They really thought outside the box and have tried to come up with the best way to deal with this in a day-to-day operational manner in addition to looking at what kinds of upgrades the system needs.
With all the challenges your agency faces, how does it feel to constantly dealing with wipes?
It’s at times, very frustrating because there’s a very real cost the agency incurs dealing with these disruptions.
We show-up at community events and we have supposedly “dissolvable flushable” wipes in sealed jars. I think we put them in there back in 2013 and they are all still completely intact. We participate in a lot of events to get the word out.
When we see a lot of wipes in a sewer line, we’ll go out to that tributary neighborhood and put door hangers out and try to engage the neighborhood.
I think the big challenge we face is we’re dealing with something as personal as hygiene . That’s often their primary objective. People think, “Yeah, maybe we’re not supposed to be flushing these, but maybe it’s just me and a couple of wipes are okay.”
If everybody feels the same way, it perpetuates the problem.
It’s really hard to try to persuade people who want to feel healthy and clean and that they’re taking adequate personal care of themselves. It’s always a challenge to balance being responsible with recognizing our personal habits have an impact on the sewer system and that raises costs for everybody in the community.
The bottom line is we don’t want sewage spilling onto the streets due to rags or wipes, and we don’t want to have to spend on capital improvements just to address trash, because that just raises the cost of service for everyone and we want to keep our costs as affordable as we can.
What are you focusing on in the coming months to deal with wipes?
A couple of different projects. The district has stepped up our involvement in advocacy efforts led by CASA and NACWA with regards to wipes legislation and trying to be influencers in Sacramento. At the big picture level as an industry, how can we influence the wipes industry to be more responsible?
Ironhouse is again stepping-up our public outreach. On our website, blasted out on social media, we put together an information video for Ironhouse customers with Louis Solano, our collection superintendent.
We want to show people this is what we’re dealing with. This is how we are tearing apart pumps and pulling out completely bound up with wipes and rags.
When residents walk by one of our public outreach booths and they’re eating snow cones and they look at the rag ball photos and go, what the heck is that? It’s a very compelling images that Roni Gehlke, our public outreach coordinator put together for us, and it draws a lot of people to our booth.
It’s an excellent opportunity for us to really tell our story. “We recognize that this is a health situation, but we want to ask you to please be responsible and not to flush wipes or debris. There are very real costs associated with this and ratepayers are covering the costs because they own this entire system, this is public infrastructure.”
Our teams are also meeting to continue upgrading pumps to address this.
We’re working from a multi-faceted perspective – minimize the source of this debris through public outreach, and that scales down the upgrades needed once it’s in our system.
The fact is wipes keep getting into our system and that is going to be a reality.
There’s a lot of work to do, and you know what, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I think we’re dealing with something that’s so near and dear to people that I think that it’s always going to have opportunities to reach out and to educate.
Where does the wipe crisis go from here? Is this the turning point?
I think there is more attention on the wipes issue now than I’ve ever seen. One of the strange unanticipated outcomes of this unprecedented public health crisis is it provides an opportunity for us to really showcase, look how much of a problem wipes are.
Do I think it’s ever going to go away? I think that we’re always going to be fighting the wipes fight, but do I think we are armed now with tools and attention that we’ve never had? I think most definitely.
I think that it’s going to be really interesting over the next couple of years. There’s a focus on wipes that we haven’t seen before. From an advocacy perspective, there is more public knowledge out there at levels that we’ve never seen.
It feels similar to recent droughts and how that normalized recycled water. There was always a yuck factor about the idea of recycled water, “Eww.” But then when the droughts hit and communities were forced to figure out how to deal with the water shortage, then this tolerance for recycled water became a little bit higher that once people got educated. They realized, “Hey, this is great.”
The same thing may happen with wipes. It hasn’t really been on people’s radar screens, now we have an opportunity to show people, “Look at the damage this is causing.” People are going to be more understanding and we’ll see some cultural shift.
I encourage people to check out the video Lewis put together. It shows a very real picture of what Ironhouse is dealing with when it comes to wipes and rags. Again, I just encourage people to be responsible in the choices that they make and only flush the 3Ps – pee, poo and toilet paper.