Common product causing underground havoc
Residents across the country, including Hampton Township, may be just one flush away from a major disaster.
The problem are diaper wipes. The solution is a garbage can.
That’s what Hampton Township Environmental Director Jim Degnan is trying to communicate to local residents that the simple act of throwing away diaper wipes, wet wipes, or any type of premoistened towelettes, instead of flushing them, can save on some major sewerage infrastructure problems down the line.
“This is one of those things that can be truly avoided,” said Degnan.
That’s because proper disposal of diaper wipes is tantamount for the well-being of sewerage infrastructure on both personal property and township systems.
Degnan said wipes are made of a synthetic material and do not break down, unlike toilet paper. Even those wipes that are labeled flushable are not any better, not breaking down despite its name.
The wipes or “rags” as he terms them, bind together and form an “incredibly strong” synthetic bond, causing clogs as other items catch onto them. Or these can catch onto a tree root or some other obstruction and collect, build up, and then clog a pipe.
If wipes make it past the sewage plumbing, it can cause problems at the township’s main sewer lines and also at its sewage treatment plant, which are not designed to break down these strong fibers.
The plant has been struggling with aging infrastructure for years. This problem of “ragging,” when baby wipes, dental floss, paper towels, facial tissue, and other items that are not designed for flushing, entangles sewer pumps, according to the township website.
Degnan said it’s a national problem, which can be backed up by searching on the Internet for diaper wipes’ damage. He said one shows a ball of “rags” collected so much debris, that a crane had to remove it from underground.
The township did purchase costly devices designed to break and cut down these rags, but have been problematic, he said.
Basically, Degnan said it begins at the residents’ homes, where these items are getting flushed. Homes with older piping may have some abnormalities or tree roots in them where rags can get caught. The next thing they know, a homeowner has a repair problem.
They’ve had some ongoing, significant issues with the pump station on East Hardies Road, which services 39 homes, he said.
They are out there on a monthly basis, removing these wipes or rags from the pump, sometimes by hand. And they have to clean them before disposing them, taking a lot of staff time.
If a pump station is clogged, water could be backing up into people’s homes, and it’s an increase every year in labor and repair costs, he said, indirectly going into the residents’ sewage bills.
“This is a problem and we’re simply asking for everyone’s cooperation and keeping them out of the system,” he said.
Degnan said there have been efforts nationally to enlarge “no flushing” symbols on the packages.
“We’re not alone,” he said.
As far as diaper wipes go, a few moms from the Hampton are on board with the no-flush rule.
Erica Baer, of Allison Park, has a 7-year-old and a 1-one-year old and is also expecting a new baby next month. She said she’d occasionally flush wipes when her oldest was in diapers as a baby if she was “out and about” but it was just as easy throwing away diapers with wipes. Once she got a job as a group home manager she found out how bad flushing and only throws them away now.
As far as possible solutions, residents could go the cloth route. Judy McAuley, of Hampton Township, said she uses a mix of cloths and store-bought wipes for her children.
She is owner of Happy Baby Company store in Bellevue that sells cloth diapers, and an “old-fashioned” Green Cheeks Diaper Service, which collects and cleans cloth diapering items and returns them fresh.
“I think cloth has definitely been making a comeback over the last decade. It saves money and the environment. It’s actually very easy to clean cloth diapers,” she said.
Whatever the case, Degnan said just don’t flush.
“It can save headaches for them and for us and save money,” said Degnan.
Natalie Beneviat is a Tribune-Review contributor.