A Wet Wipe Problem

The efficiency of a well-designed system is often limited by the operations of the people who use them. In my most recent article, I covered “smart” technologies that help people make systems in their home more efficient. Buying the proper smart technology is a great place to start, but their effectiveness depends on the owner’s willingness and dedication to learn how they work and to use them correctly.

One of the largest, most taken advantage of, and least thought about system is the New York City sewer and sanitation system. On a daily basis, 1.3 billion gallons of safe drinking water is delivered, used and disposed of in New York. Most people don’t give much thought to the scale and complexity of this system because it is mostly out of sight (and therefore out of mind). However, in order to get this job done the sewer system requires 6,000 miles of pipes, 135,000 sewer catch basins, over 494 permitted outfalls and 93 wastewater pumping stations.

The New York Times recently covered an issue that has begun to jeopardize the effectiveness of New York City’s sewer system – the wet wipe. Across the country wet wipes have increased in sales by 23%, and the “flushable” assertion seen on many of the boxes actually may not be true in New York City, Alaska, California, Hawaii and Wisconsin. Unlike everyday toilet paper, “flushable” wipes do not easily disintegrate in water, and more often than not they become knotted with everything else in the sewer system that does not break down.

While the sanitation department does employ different systems to pull material out of the sewage, the screening equipment is capturing more and more every year, almost doubling the amount pulled out since 2008. The major problem is that 100% of the material needed to be pulled out of the system is not captured by the screening equipment. Anything that makes it through can cause damage to pumping and treatment equipment, and the increase in wipes in the sewer system means more volume that the sanitation department has to remove.

The issue begins with the consumer and ripples across the sewer system to sewer treatment facilities and back to the consumer. The cost of more maintenance, equipment replacements, and volume of sewage to be treated is passed along in the form of raised water rates.

In a perfect world, we would all stop using these “flushable” wipes. For those looking for an alternative, a bidet attachment can be bought for less than $50 and attached to any standard toilet.

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