Unless you were involved in the early (and seemingly irrational) COVID-19 toilet paper stockpiling frenzy, you’ve probably noticed that the paper product we once took for granted has become nearly impossible to find.
Grocery store shelves where hoards of toilet paper once sat are now empty, toilet paper vendors on Amazon and eBay are sold out, TP-related memes are now almost as popular online as dog videos, and sparing a square is officially considered volunteer work. And that, for a variety of reasons, is cause for great concern.
From bidets and wet wipes to Kleenex and paper towels, Americans are being forced to become increasingly adventurous with what products they use for you-know-what in you-know-where. And that has landlords and officials in the wastewater industry worried.
On March 17, the California Water Boards sent out a notice reminding Californians that wet wipes and paper towels can clog sewer systems and shouldn’t be flushed.
“Wipes are among the leading causes of sewer system backups, impacting sewer system and treatment plant pumps and treatment systems,” the notice reads. “Many spills go to our lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they have broad-ranging impacts on public health and the environment. Preventing sewer spills is important, especially during this COVID-19 emergency, for the protection of public health and the environment.”
When California West Real Estate Management President Derek Banducci saw the state’s notice, he immediately forwarded it to all of his tenants in hopes of educating them and in turn avoiding serious and costly damage.
“We rent to a lot of college students who are out living on their own for the first time,” Banducci told the Sun. “So they don’t realize the damage this can cause.”
As the president of a property management company, Banducci has dealt with his fair share of plumbing issues. Wet wipes are a common instigator of pipe blockages, which he said can cause sewage to back up through pipes and come out of kitchen sinks and showers.
Fixing something like that can cost thousands, and Banducci said if he can figure out which tenants are to blame for the damage, he’ll charge them. The problem is so common that California West’s leases all prohibit the flushing of wet wipes, he said.
“Flushing wipes down toilets is a bad idea,” Banducci said.
Shad Springer, director of utilities for the city of Santa Maria, said there is a heightened concern that with the short supply of toilet paper, people will turn to inappropriate alternatives to get the job done. What people do with those alternatives after using them could be a problem, something Springer said the city is trying to get out in front of.
Although the city has campaigned against wet wipes in the pipes for years, Santa Maria is re-upping its public information game to remind people that anything other than toilet paper should hit the trash—not the sewer system.
“For us, it’s always a concern when there are things other than human waste and toilet paper in the sewer system,” Springer said. “It’s so easy for people to get confused.”
David Hix, deputy director of San Luis Obispo Wastewater, agrees.
“The problem with wipes is that they don’t break down like toilet paper,” Hix told the Sun.
Toilet paper is the only product that truly breaks down like toilet paper, Hix said. Paper towels, wet wipes, Clorox wipes, shop towels, and even wipes that are specifically marketed and labeled as “flushable” are in fact not flushable. When those products do go into toilets, they can cause serious plumbing and sewage issues.
Wet wipes in particular are constant troublemakers in the wastewater industry, and Hix is hoping the current absence of toilet paper from stores’ shelves won’t make that problem worse locally.
Adult wet wipes have been on the market for years, but Hix said they only gained popularity about 10 years ago. Most wet wipes—including the notorious “flushable wipes”—actually contain plastic materials that don’t dissolve. Instead, they tend to catch and bunch up throughout the city’s sewer infrastructure, leading to blockages.
Sometimes the problem occurs on private property. Wipes often get caught on tree roots and attract oil and grease, resulting in large obstructions in private pipes, septic systems, and sewer lines that can lead to property damage.
Other times, the problem hits farther down the line, catching in the sewer collection systems, clogging and damaging the pumps that move wastewater to the treatment facility, and amassing and weaving together at the treatment plant.
The wipes wreak havoc on wastewater equipment, and the blockages they cause can lead to overflows and spills of raw, untreated waste. Spills are fairly significant health and environmental hazards, and with a pandemic already in full swing, Hix said a sewage crisis is really the last thing we need to worry about right now.
When such a situation does unfold in the city’s main, it’s next to impossible to figure out who is to blame, and Hix said the city hasn’t been successful in finding and charging offenders in the past. Santa Maria Utilities Director Springer said Santa Maria hasn’t had any major issues caused by non-toilet paper in the sewer system.
Santa Maria does have problem spots in the sewer system that it keeps an eye on, Springer said. Areas with a propensity for stoppage are cleaned out on a regular schedule. Mostly, he said, the city is trying to prevent backups from happening, which is why it’s trying to get the message out there to remind people: No wipes in the pipes.
“I understand that toilet paper is harder to come by, but people haven’t completely run out yet, so we’re just trying to get ahead of it and encourage people to do the right thing,” Springer said. “[Pipes] have a propensity to back up, and wipes and other non-toilet paper items in the pipes do create an issue for us.”
New Times Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at [email protected]. Editor Camillia Lanham contributed to this story.