KATHY LAMBERT: Is flushable convenience ‘wiping out’ sewer system?

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Most people are busy and need to fit their housework into crowded schedules. It’s no surprise that cleaning products are increasingly marketed to consumers eager to get the job done as quickly as possible. A new product has become wildly popular in the past few years – disposable cleaning wipes.

According to a recent report, North American consumers bought nearly 83,000 tons of disposable wipes in 2004, which is enough to fill about 9,000 semi-truck trailers. MarketResearch.com reports that 60 percent of adults have used household cleaning wipes, and sales are expected to reach the $2 billion mark by 2010.

However, convenience has its price.

While some products boast the added convenience of being flushable and safe for sewers and septic systems, the people who maintain and operate our local and regional wastewater utilities disagree.

King County operates a regional sewer utility that provides wastewater treatment services for 34 local sewer agencies. The local agencies collect wastewater from homes and businesses, and send it to the county’s regional system for treatment.

Sewer utility crews for both the local and regional agencies are increasingly being called out to do battle with great balls of “flushable” cleaning wipes, pads, facial tissues, baby wipes and feminine hygiene products that have become tangled in pumping equipment.

In a worst-case scenario, jammed up pumps can lead to raw sewage overflows into homes, businesses and waterways, which threatens public health and the environment. At best, these problems are making the treatment process more expensive for ratepayers. In 2008, King County spent well over $100,000 just to haul and dispose of sewer system trash in a landfill.

It’s important to clarify that King County has not conducted tests on any particular brand or type of disposable or flushable product. Neither does the county discourage people from buying and using cleaning wipes.

King County DOES urge consumers who choose these products to dispose of them in the trash instead of flushing them down the toilet. In fact, like most sewer utilities, King County and its customer agencies recommend flushing only bodily waste and toilet paper – that’s it.

So, in the quest to reduce costs and keep things tidy – from bathroom to baby – please don’t flush items that may cause trouble. Please help protect public health, the environment and water quality and put used cleaning wipes, pads, swabs, and anything else besides human waste and toilet paper in the trash, not the in toilet.

Kathy Lambert is the King County Councilmember for District 3 and is a member of the Regional Water Quality Committee and the King County Board of Health. Christie True is the division director of King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division.


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