Solving the Challenge of Non-Dispersible Wipes Coming Down the Sewer Pipes

In this jar test conduced by OCSD tp breaksdown within seconds, while the wipe did not breakdown even after 24 hours of stirring. (credit: OCSD)

By Alec Mackie
CWEA-WEF Delegate Director

They sound like punch lines for late night comedians – fatbergs, polar bears, soccer balls, muffins and beach whistles – but to wastewater professionals the wipes clogging pumps and pipes are no laughing matter.

Untangling sewer pumps and valves from the tightly wound-up mess of wipes and rags is a dirty and dangerous task for CWEA members. And the frequency of sewers clogging with wipes is rising fast, in the worst cases some pump stations clog every day. If a storm hits and balls of rags and wipes get flushed into the pumps, it could cause an SSO. Who knows if the State Board will be forgiving in that situation.

We need to eliminate pump ragging and I believe we can. Our members are entering dangerous confined spaces and tearing apart pumps to remove balls of wipes and rags that contain disease and hypodermic needles. Impellers can become so tightly bound with rags, knives or wire cutters are needed to cut them off.

Five years after problems first started surfacing with these new types of wipes are we any closer to a solution? Can we bring an end to the dirty and dangerous task of constantly deragging sewer pumps?

A city in the Pacific Northwest conducted a test on various wipes, dying them and then dropping them into the sewers 1 mile away from the treatment plant. The wipes did not disperse – they arrived at the headworks fully intact (credit: City of Vancouver)

As a member of the WEF Work Group focused on this issue I believe we are getting closer and with a bit of a push we can put in place solutions to the problem. Nearly 100 WEF volunteers, several wipe manufacturers and pump and grinder manufacturers are all working on solutions.

During last year’s non-dispersibles discussion at Annual Conference, one CWEA member asked simply, “what would it cost to put a Muffin Monster in every pump station?” While that question sounded good to me, as the factory representative even I realize there isn’t one single magic bullet that’s going to solve all of our pump ragging challenges for good.

It’s going to take multiple tactics, coordinated among several groups and implementing the best ideas in an efficient, coordinated manner. Moreover CWEA members are welcome to participate in this process. We need stronger relationships between wastewater associations and the manufacturers of materials clogging our sewers. We also need to hurry up, before a hard working sewer professional gets hurt unclogging a pump.

The Background

Introduced in the early 2000s wet wipes were marketed for household cleaning and “flushable” bathroom use and their popularity exploded. In the early days, these “flushable“ products were merely resized versions of baby wipes – wipes made of a stretchy, plastic material known as spunlace. No wonder they didn’t disperse.

In recent years most wipes makers switched to a cellulose substrate, but dispersibility is still an issue. Wipes makers know they’re under pressure and in 2013 we saw several bathroom wipe breakthroughs, some using fancy techniques called “airlaid pulp and binder” or “wetlaid-spunlace-thermal.” Both show promising rates of dispersibility and indicate wet bathroom wipes can indeed disperse.  Sales of wet wipes, America’s new best friend, are rising at double digit rates and are now a $5-6 billion product category.

Howard Stern raves about them on his radio show; a British TV actress hawks them in catchy TV ads called “Let’s talk About Your Bum”; Fresh Ends are being pitched at hotels for their guests and Dude Wipes are being pitched to dudes. We even saw the Shitten hit the market in 2013 – a soft cotton material sewn into a glove containing this fuzzy flushable guidance –  “you know your plumbing best.” What they meant to say is – do not flush.

Sewer debris has always been part of our profession.  I’ve spent 12 years marketing the Muffin Monster – a product born in 1973 to take care of cotton feminine products (“muffins”) that were clogging local treatment plants. However, starting around 2008 several agencies saw increasing pump ragging and increasing maintenance costs in their collection systems above and beyond the average rate of clogging.

One of the first to sound the alarm was the Orange County Sanitation District which saw increasing ragging issues at their ten pumping plants and treatment plants. After tracking the problem down to nondispersible wipes and putting a dollar cost on the maintenance burden – about $30,000 per pump station per year – the District put together an outstanding public outreach campaign called “What2Flush.”

The answer is the 3Ps – pee, poo, and toilet paper – and nothing else. The program is so popular OCSD is receiving calls from other agencies who want to use the program to educate their customers.

The program attracted media and TV interviews and is a big hit at public outreach events. But the onslaught of wipes continues. They recently had two dramatic demonstrations of the impact of wipes on their treatment plants. In one instance, two Parkson washer compactors became so packed with rags they had to be unpacked by plant mechanics and operators. They removed 40 trash bags of wipes in one day. In a second instance a sludge digester was recently found to contain about 8’ of rags, wipes and other debris in addition to the typical grit accumulation.

Americans are flushing more debris than ever. One researcher recently pointed out to a WEF task group that the TV advertising by wipes makers is forever changing America’s view of their toilets – if it will flush, whatever it is, it’s okay.  Undoing this viewpoint is now our enormous challenge.

What’s Working

While many of our nondispersible wipes reports are gloomy, there are a few rays of hope out there in wastewater land. CWEA members are incredibly creative when it comes to solving problems.

  • The wastewater and nonwoven groups are working together, slowly but still together. WEF, NACWA, APWA and INDA are working on a Joint Technical Work Group to find areas where the wastewater associations and wipes makers can work together on guidelines, public communication and innovation. We need to support this joint working group – this year will be our best chance to work together on solutions.
  • OCSD’s What2Flush (www.what2flush.com) campaign is popular with the public and has gotten picked up by 13 other wastewater agencies
  • Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts confronted a major ragging problem at their massive 40-MGD Long Beach Pumping Plant. The solution, according to sewer system engineer Mark Pettit, PE, was to spin the pumps backwards for 30 seconds every morning to shake the rags off the impeller, then run the pump full forward to force the debris through the pump. The tactic worked, eliminating costly and time consuming pump deragging maintenance visits. The agency is looking at expanding the relatively inexpensive technique to their other pump stations with ragging issues.
  • In Maine a new public education campaign called “Save Your Pipes: Don’t Flush Baby Wipes” is targeting Portland residents to see if more aggressive public education can reduce the number of wipes entering the sewer system. It is being funded jointly by INDA, an association of some wipes manufacturers, and the Maine WasteWater Control Association. The $113,000 research project includes ads running on cable tv, social media, websites, a “sticky note” inside the local newspaper and messaging at retail stores. Pre and post-campaign research will measure the effectiveness of the public outreach. On this topic INDA agrees with us – baby wipes are not designed to be flushed. To learn more visit www.SaveYourPipes.org
  • In the City of Santa Ana a pump station with dry-prime pumps was clogging frequently with wipes. The working conditions were cramped and dangerous for repair crews. The problem was cleared up by installation of a dual shafted sewage grinder.
  • Central Contra Costa Sanitary District and engineer Justin Waples, PE, came up with an affordable way to notify property owners about the consequences of nondispersibles in areas where sewer blockages occur. Justin records the location of the blockage and using GIS, he traces the sewershed upstream. The GIS then generates a mailing list of all customers in the area and they receive a postcard with information about nondispersibles and the problems they cause – including the possibility of plumbing problems on the owner’s property. The mailings have proven effective in preventing reoccurring problems.
  • Orange County consulting engineer Tricia Butler, PE, of RMC Water & Environment came up with a simple, no cost idea when designing new pump stations for her clients – leave room in front of the pump for an in-line sewer grinder, but don’t install it yet. This gives sewer crews the flexibility of installing a grinder in the future if pump ragging ever does become a problem.
  • In Vancouver, WA the city installed $650,000 in new pumping equipment to prevent ragging. The agency also discovered wipes slowly build up on the pump impellers, reducing pump efficiency. This led to tens of thousands of dollars in higher electrical bills since the pumps worked harder to move the same amount of sewage. One of the hidden costs of wipes.
  • In Portland, ME the city installed a $4.3 million screening building at a pump station to put an end to constant pump ragging.
  • One wipes manufacturer, Kimberly Clark, introduced a new substrate (the portion of the wipe which typically does not disperse) in 2013 that utilizes short fibers and a water soluble binder that breaks down once it gets wet. The new substrate has been tested by the wastewater industry and is considered by some wastewater professionals to be the current benchmark for dispersibility.    It is the opinion of these professionals that based on their testing that if all wipes, including baby wipes, were made of this substrate the problem with pump clogging would be greatly reduced or eliminated.   And in a look to the future, Kimberly Clark has developed a substrate that will hit the market place in 2014 that breaks apart quicker and with less force than their 2013 product.
  • We’ve done our homework – several dozen research projects looked closely at the debris inside pump stations and determined around 40% are frequently baby wipes. In one study, researchers found 40% of the debris was actually brown and white paper towels from public restrooms.
  • The Southern California Association of POTWs (SCAP) offers a pump clog form so agencies can record data about each pump ragging incident and determine which materials are causing the problem. The form is available on www.scap1.org – search for Non-dispersibles Report.
  • CWEA and several other wastewater associations wrote letters to Costco asking for a larger and clearer do not flush logo on their baby wipes and cleaning wipes. In 2013 Costco and their wipes maker, Nice-Pak, introduced a larger do not flush symbol and placed it right on top of the packaging.  Unfortunately, in our view, they are the only company to improve package labeling.

A sewage grinder chops up rags and wipes in Orange County, California (credit: JWCE)

What Will Our Future Be?

After three years of studies, presentations and conversations, the spring of 2014 has seen more activity than ever. We’ll see announcements about joint working groups, new wipes technologies, new public education programs and new research projects. There is hope.

As I mentioned earlier – one solution alone will not get the job done. In particular, INDA represents the largest wipes manufacturers but does not represent all of them.

So what other tactics should we consider? I would propose:

  1. Conduct a cost survey – how big is the problem and how much is it costing wastewater agencies? We hope to release a survey soon so please keep track of the cost of pump ragging.
  2. Aggressive public education – when the Maine outreach campaign is finished, the TV ads, literature, messaging and website will likely be made available for all public wastewater agencies to customize with their names, logos, and local contacts. This gives us a running start to roll-out catchy “do not flush” campaigns, including a focus on baby wipes as Maine did.
  3. Investing in technology and research – this applies to both our profession and the wipes manufacturers. Better sewer and wipe technologies are out there, they simply need testing, investment and implementation. Since the clean water sector is already underfunded, higher sewer rates may be needed to pay for upgrades to pumping stations and finer screening at treatment plants. If customers want to use wipes, they need to fund sewers system that can safely and reliably process material. At the same time, wipes manufacturers need to sell wipes which disperse within the time allotment we can all agree to.
  4. Collaboration – as I meet with various groups on this issue I realize there are more groups we should be meeting with. After collaborating with wipes manufacturers and looking at our research we know we need to reach out to other groups, including: paper towel manufacturers; prison and jail officials; nursing home operators; hospital owners; day care centers; and then we need to go to the makers of pharmaceuticals and personal care products; and so on. A brave new world of collaboration is needed.
  5. Wastewater professionals need to meet, discuss and agree on what we should do next. 2014 will be a big decision year for us – should we work with the wipes manufacturers? What is the amount of time that defines dispersibility? And what’s happening to the pulp in our sewer systems? We’re at a stage where we need answers sooner rather than later. So please be sure to join us Friday morning at the Nondispersible wipes roundtable at Annual Conference 2014.

No wonder OCSD started What2Flush.com – purifying wastewater would be more efficient, straightforward and affordable if people flushed the 3 Ps – poo, pee and toilet paper. Okay maybe the occasional puke too in an emergency. However, consumer advertising is teaching people really bad habits about what they can flush.

The faster we prioritize and take action – the sooner sewer professionals can stop climbing down into dangerous conditions and pulling rags and debris out of sewer pumps by hand. It’s our job to ensure California’s sewers keep flowing, but not like this.

What do you think about the nondispersible wipes crisis? Leave a comment below or contact Alec at 714-428-4614 or alecm@jwce.com.

Mr. Mackie is a member of WEF’s Work Group on NonDispersibles and Marketing Manager for JWC Environmental, manufacturer of the Muffin Monster sewage grinder.

About the Author

Alec Mackie

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2 comments on “Solving the Challenge of Non-Dispersible Wipes Coming Down the Sewer Pipes

  1. Christina Harshell says:

    Making the wipes more dispersible in water may help to solve the problem that sewerage agencies are experiencing but there is yet another problem. These wipes are made from inorganic substances and if they are dispersible enough the particles from them will eventually make it out to the receiving waters where they continue to harm the environment and add to the “plastic islands” in the ocean.

    Unreasonable as it may seem, what we really need to do is begin a program to eliminate them entirely. Our disposable society is a detriment to the health of the planet and that includes us!

  2. Alec Mackie says:

    Great point Christina – and the inorganic fibers may impact the acceptance of other materials we need to continue recycling such as biosolids or recycled water.

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