116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A turn of the handle can send whatever’s in your toilet spiraling away in seconds, never to be seen again — ideally.
But when items swirl down where they’re not supposed to, they can disrupt the complex process that turns human waste into treated water that’s discharged into the Cedar River.
“Bed sheets and kids’ toys are always an interesting find,” said Lauren O'Neil, the plant manager of the Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Center, in an email. “Watches and phones have been known to turn up, too.”
These big, bulky items obviously shouldn’t be making their way into the sewage system. However, there are more problematic items that are commonly flushed down local toilets: feminine hygiene products and the erroneously labeled “flushable” wipes.
Cedar Rapids’ wastewater pollution control facility removes one to two dumpster loads of these items every week, O’Neil said.
“Feminine hygiene products and flushable wipes are the biggest issues with causing clogs or equipment issues,” she said.
Almost 90 percent of Americans reported using at least one pre-moist wipe or cloth in a week in 2020. But don’t let their name fool you, O'Neil warned — most so-called “flushable” wipes aren’t actually flushable.
While toilet paper is designed to disintegrate in the pipes, wipes are not. They can cause problems even before they’re able to get to the wastewater pollution control facility, clogging homeowners’ discharge and sewer pipes. Beyond that, they can block collection lines, pumps and treatment processes.
Clogs attract fat, oil and grease, which latch on and build up — like a river getting clogged with trees or bushes, O’Neil said. These build-ups can cause pumps and other equipment to fail.
“When pumps stop working, this can lead to backups that can become a human health hazard and can be very costly to fix,” she said.
Particularly large sewage blockages are sometimes referred to as “fatbergs.” A 330-ton fatberg — heavier than the Statue of Liberty — made up of unflushable wipes, diapers and sanitary products plagued a sewage system in the United Kingdom last year.
Equipment at the wastewater pollution control facility does its best to remove these hazards at the start of the treatment process. Two large screens with giant rakes scoop out debris — but they can’t catch everything, O’Neil said.
And even the few wipes that actually degrade are problematic: They can contribute tiny bits of plastic, called “microplastics,” to our waterways, research has found. Microplastics can harm aquatic organisms and can even creep into our own meals through the food we eat.
“The more we reduce what is flushed, the better we all are in the long run,” O’Neil said.
● “Flushable” wipes
● Feminine hygiene products
● Paper towels
● Fats, oils and grease
● Leftover medication
Brittney J. Miller is an environmental reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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