For more than 34 years, Brad Fix has been in charge of the Indiana Wastewater Treatment Plant and collection system in Shelbyville. He says the business has changed drastically in the last 10 years due to the growing number of “flushable” wipes and other personal hygiene products available on the market.
Think before you flush
The problem appears to start with the marketing and labeling of the many products available on store shelves. They advertise “flushable.” For many consumers, when they flush something down the drain, it is the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. While the wipes do go down the drain, the practice causes a negative ripple effect.
In Terre Haute, once you flush one of the aforementioned objects down the drain, it will flow through the sewer system to your nearest pumping or lift station. To understand what a station looks like, a big one sits at 27th Street and Maple Avenue. Inside a pump station are impellers. Much like a boat motor, an impeller keeps spinning until a wipe gets trapped in it. One wipe will slow down the impeller and eventually enough of them will jam the impeller until it stops spinning. Then the sewage can’t get pumped to a lift station.
When that happens, the sewer overflows. People in the nearby neighborhoods may then find themselves with sewage backing up into their basement, toilets may overflow and bath tubs may fill up with waste. In some cases, the raw sewage may overflow out of the drains and onto the streets and sometimes into nearby tributaries. Do you want to go splash in puddles now?
The lift stations are designed to carry waste from different parts of Terre Haute to the treatment plant. The wastewater utility maintenance employees check the lift stations daily. Terre Haute Wastewater Utility Code Enforcement Officer Alicia Barnard says that when there is a problem, the “sewer crew” has to pull the pumps up to the surface, then use utility knifes to pull the wipes and other products, such as tampons, away from the impellers. “There are problems daily across the city,” Barnard said.
When an overflow situation does occur, they then locate the neighborhood or subdivision that is the source. They will leave a door tag on the homeowner’s door with the headline “Waste or Storm Pollution Found In Your Area.” The door tag lists items, everything from motor oil to trash, shop towels to metal shavings. According to Barnard, the upgrades to the sewage treatment plant will not help the problems at the lift stations. They will only improve the treatment of water discharged.
When some of the “flushables” make it all the way to the treatment plant, they are then bagged and taken to the landfill in Vigo County. The Wastewater Treatment department hauls away six yards of waste a week that cannot be treated.
On a national level
Fix says the “flushable” market has grown from $7 billion in sales in 2004 to $13 billion in 2013. He has been appointed by the Indiana House of Delegates to flush out this problem and has been working with INDA (Association of Nonwoven Fabrics) in North America. He pointed to a study conducted by the Orange County, Calif., Sanitation District, which tested the breakdown of toilet paper versus wipes. They placed a wipe in one beaker filled with water and four sheets of toilet paper in another beaker, and placed them on a stir plate. After 24 hours, the wipe remained intact and recognizable, while the toilet paper began to disperse after 20 seconds and was fully dispersed after one minute and seven seconds.
The jury is out
Fix says he has been keeping a close eye on a case in Grand Rapids, Mich., where a homeowner sued the city for sewer waste that backed up into his house. Evidence revealed during the case that the homeowner was flushing “flushable” wipes.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., dentist is reportedly suing the makers of Cottonelle and Costco-brand wipes. After flushing them down the drain, he ended up with a $600 plumbing bill. New York City spends $18 million dollars a year to collect and discard debris caught in machinery at its 14 wastewater treatment plants, much of which is flushable wipes. In Terre Haute, Barnard said, if folks would stop flushing inappropriate items down the drain, employees could spend less time fixing and maintaining equipment, and more time focusing on treating the water.
The Water Environment Federation and the American Public Works Association, both nonprofit groups that deal with wastewater issues, are expected to meet later this year with product manufacturers to jointly determine what the term “flushable” should mean.
Meanwhile, states like California are independently pushing for stronger labeling on packages.
SI2016 Regional Coordinator, Terra Haute
Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at .