Unless you were involved in the early (and seemingly irrational) COVID-19 toilet paper stockpiling frenzy, you've probably noticed that the paper product we once took for granted has become near impossible to find.
Grocery store shelves where hoards of toilet paper once sat are now empty, toilet paper vendors on Amazon and eBay are sold out, TP-related memes are now almost as popular online as dog videos, and sparing a square is officially considered volunteer work. And that, for a variety of reasons, is cause for great concern.
From bidets and wet wipes to Kleenex and paper towels, Americans are being forced to become increasingly adventurous with what products they use for you-know-what in you-know-where. And that has landlords and officials in the wastewater industry worried.
On March 17, the California Water Boards sent out a notice reminding Californians that wet wipes and paper towels can clog sewer systems and shouldn't be flushed.
"Wipes are among the leading causes of sewer system backups, impacting sewer system and treatment plant pumps and treatment systems," the notice reads. "Many spills go to our lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they have broad-ranging impacts on public health and the environment. Preventing sewer spills is important, especially during this COVID-19 emergency, for the protection of public health and the environment."
- Graphic Courtesy Of California Associaton Of Sanitation Agencies
- DON'T FLUSH Wet wipes are among the leading causes of sewer system backups and cause serious damage, according to the California Association of Sanitation Agencies.
When California West Real Estate Management President Derek Banducci saw the state's notice, he immediately forwarded it to all of his tenants in hopes of educating them and in turn avoiding serious and costly damage.
"In our SLO office, we rent to a lot of college students who are out living on their own for the first time," Banducci told New Times. "So they don't realize the damage this can cause."
As the president of a property management company, Banducci has dealt with his fair share of plumbing issues. Wet wipes are a common instigator of pipe blockages, which he said can cause sewage to back up through pipes and come out of kitchen sinks and showers.
Fixing something like that can cost thousands, and Banducci said if he can figure out which tenants are to blame for the damage, he'll charge them. The problem is so common that California West's leases all prohibit the flushing of wet wipes, he said.
"Flushing wipes down toilets is a bad idea," Banducci said.
David Hix, deputy director of San Luis Obispo Wastewater, agrees.
"The problem with wipes is that they don't break down like toilet paper," Hix told New Times.
Toilet paper is the only product that truly breaks down like toilet paper, Hix said. Paper towels, wet wipes, Clorox wipes, shop towels, and even wipes that are specifically marketed and labeled as "flushable" are in fact not flushable. When those products do go into toilets, they can cause serious plumbing and sewage issues.
Wet wipes in particular are constant troublemakers in the wastewater industry, and Hix is hoping the current absence of toilet paper from stores' shelves won't make that problem worse locally.
Adult wet wipes have been on the market for years, but Hix said they only gained popularity about 10 years ago. Most wet wipes—including the notorious "flushable wipes"—actually contain plastic materials that don't dissolve. Instead, they tend to catch and bunch up throughout the city's sewer infrastructure, leading to blockages.
Sometimes the problem occurs on private property. Wipes often get caught on tree roots and attract oil and grease, resulting in large obstructions in private pipes, septic systems, and sewer lines that can lead to property damage.
Other times, the problem hits farther down the line, catching in the sewer collection systems, clogging and damaging the pumps that move wastewater to the treatment facility, and amassing and weaving together at the treatment plant.
The wipes wreak havoc on wastewater equipment, and the blockages they cause can lead to overflows and spills of raw, untreated waste. Spills are fairly significant health and environmental hazards, and with a pandemic already in full swing, Hix said a sewage crisis is really the last thing we need to worry about right now.
When such a situation does unfold in the city's main, it's next to impossible to figure out who is to blame, and Hix said the city hasn't been successful in finding and charging offenders in the past. It's unclear how much the city spends each year repairing damage caused by flushed unflushables, but Hix said the city spends about $1.4 million annually on sewage and wastewater maintenance and cleaning, and an additional $2 million on replacing aged or obsolete infrastructure.
So while Hix said he understands that it's a challenging time for everyone, "the only thing that should go in the toilet is toilet paper."
"We're not saying don't use these wipes," Hix told New Times, "but they really have to go in the garbage." Δ
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.