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Environment

Colorado wastewater managers are grappling with a “wipes crisis” that leaves pipes in crappy shape

Low-flow toilets and an endless supply of wipes that shouldn’t actually be flushed result in heavy, stinking blobs lightheartedly referred to as ‘Cousin Its’ when they’re dragged from the sewer

Disposable wipes get entangled in equipment used by Aurora Water to cut through blockages, including tree roots. Though the equipment has powerful teeth, the wipes remain mostly intact. (Photo provided by Aurora Water)
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KEYSTONE — The congealed blobs of stinking disposable wipes pulled from sewage pump stations across the country, those are called “Cousin Its.” When there are hypodermic needles in the system-jamming clogs, those are called “Porcupines.”

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“Whoever has to deal with these is typically the lowest guy on the totem pole,” says Dave Barkey as he clicks through a slide show of grimacing wastewater-treatment workers hoisting black gobs of soggy wipes.

Barkey sells wipe-churning grinders to sewer plants and on Monday he gave a presentation titled “Wiping Out the Wipes Crisis” at the Rocky Mountain Water Conference in Keystone. Hosted by the Rocky Mountain American Water Works Association and Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association, the conference drew more than 900 attendees for a regional rally of municipal utility managers eager to learn the latest technologies and processes for treating water and wastewater. 

The wipes industry is huge and growing at more than 5% a year, with sales expected to climb to more than $20 billion in 2021 from about $15 billion in 2017. Entrepreneurs have seized the wipe trend with products like Dude Wipes, Below The Belt Butt Wipes and the mitt-shaped Shittens. Combine the wipe frenzy with water-saving toilets flushing with as little as 1.28 gallons — compared with 5 gallons a few decades ago — and sewage treatment plants worldwide are grappling with system-clogging baby wipes, cleaning wipes and other so-called “disposable” and “flushable” wipes.

Sometimes wipes flushed elsewhere can cause back ups in the home. This massive backup was the result of disposable wipes flushed somewhere else on the line that created a blockage and forced sewage into a house. (Provided by Aurora Water)

They are, technically, disposable and flushable: once they are used and dropped into a toilet, they are no longer in that bowl. But the wipes don’t dissolve like toilet paper. They gather on pipe-penetrating roots and wrap around treatment screens and filters.

Pump stations can see wipes-related maintenance costs climb as much as $30,000 a year and power bills increase just as much as systems labor to push wipes through treatment processes. Plugs of wipes seem most problematic downstream of senior-living facilities, retirement communities, hospitals and schools, Barkey says. 

“The wipes problem is not going away,” he says, launching into his presentation of mechanical solutions for a room full of wipe-weary wastewater treatment bosses. 

MORE: Where does our poop end up? Probably spread on farmland in eastern Colorado

There are chopper pumps with screw-type impellers that require big motors and lots of energy. There are more efficient grinder pumps, with pairs of 17-tooth, serrated cutters spinning both horizontally and vertically. The choppers and grinders work to shred wipes into the tiniest of bits, which prevents the dreaded “reweaving,” where strands of wipes find each other downstream and create equipment-blocking problems anew.

Pump station managers can also deploy the more labor-intensive screens and augers to capture and remove wipes from treatment facilities. 

After closing his presentation with stories of whale-sized fatbergs of wipes and congealed fatbergs obstructing sewers around the world, Barkey took a few questions. 

How long do the new grinders last? one person asked. Anywhere from two to 10 years, depending on how much use they get. 

Can cities or wastewater treatment managers sue manufacturers who make wipes? wondered another. Lawsuits targeting wipes manufacturers have not gone far as municipalities struggle to prove that “flushable” wipes are the cause of problems after studies show a host of nonflushable items — like paper towels, trash, baby wipes and surface cleaning wipes — are clogging aging wastewater treatment collection and treatment systems.  

“Banning or penalizing these innovative products designed to be flushed will only worsen the problems faced by municipalities because consumers will likely turn to nonflushable products – like baby wipes – to address their toileting needs,” reads a 2018 statement from the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry after a Minnesota city backed out of a lawsuit it had filed against the makers of flushable wipes without any compensation. 

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

While sewer treatment bosses focus on mechanical solutions to wipes in pipes, municipalities and water managers are working on education campaigns designed to educate flushers about wipes. 

“I think public outreach is our best strategy right now,” says Stephanie Segler who helps assess wastewater treatment systems for Denver engineering and environmental consulting firm HDR Inc. “I think there is more the public needs to know. Just Google ‘fatberg’ and you’ll find agencies around the world are dealing with this. People need to stop using them. They should not be used.”

Colorado wastewater managers don’t struggle with wipes as much as their colleagues around the country, said Edyta Stec-Uddin, a senior engineer with Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which serves 60 local governments in metro Denver.

Disposable wipes combine with fats, oils and grease to clog pipes in Aurora Water’s wastewater system. (Provided by Aurora Water)

“Maybe people in Colorado don’t use as many,” she says. “And we do have good outreach and maybe that helps.”

Bergs of wipes in MWRD plants can be as big as 8-feet tall, 4-feet wide and “extremely, extremely heavy,” Stec-Uddin says. The masses can overwhelm filters, screen and equipment, she says. 

So when it comes to outreach, should wastewater treatment managers do a better job of making sure toilet flushers are distinguishing between flushable and nonflushable wipes? 

“I would say all of them are nonflushable,” says Stec-Uddin, sharing a sort of mantra among wastewater managers. “They don’t dissolve.”

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