A stinky situation: So-called ‘flushable’ products can cause costly sewer issues

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

City officials are asking local residents to watch what they flush down their toilets. 

In McGregor, one residence on Main Street was recently impacted by a sewage backup, and some downtown businesses have also faced issues. The city of Marquette dealt with a clogged pump around Christmas—an incident that could have resulted in a sewage backup into homes. 

The culprit, officials said, is a host of products like hand towels and disinfectant wipes that are marketed as “flushable” materials, but don’t flow through the sewer system or degrade like toilet paper. 

“So many products say they’re flushable. And sure, they’ll flush, but they don’t break down,” explained Duane Boelman, McGregor’s deputy city clerk. “They stay in one place. They accumulate and clog up and cause damage.” 

During repairs, Boelman said workers in McGregor have discovered everything from disposable diapers to plastic. 

“Just an amazing amount of stuff,” he said. “We’re not sure where they came from. I’m amazed at how it flushed.” 

Marquette City Clerk Bonnie Basemann said baby wipes, along with heavy duty, blue paper towels, like those used by mechanics, have caused issues for workers there. 

In addition to wipes, diapers, hand towels and plastic wrappers and packaging, other products that should not be flushed include facial tissues, toilet bowl scrub pads, Swiffer products, paper and cloth napkins, paper towels, sanitary napkins, tampons, condoms, cloth items, kitty litter, dental floss, syringes, vitamins and other medications. 

“Combine that with grease and cooking oil, and it can really cause some major clogs,” Boelman said. 

Both Boelman and Basemann said residents are largely unaware of the potential harm. 

“It’s not something people are intentionally doing,” noted Boelman. 

Nevertheless, when flushed, these products can clog up and tangle around pipes and pumps, causing messy, smelly and costly sewer backups in streets, homes and businesses if not caught in time. 

Clogs can also burn out pumps at the lift station, Basemann said, and pulling the pumps costs the city both employee time and resources. 

“It’s hard on the system,” she stated. “And that’s extra time and overtime paying employees to come back [and fix it]. Because it never happens when they’re here.” 

Although the city pays to repair the main lines running through its property, Boelman said property owners are responsible for any issues that occur in their own lines from the main to their homes or businesses. 

By flushing only human waste and toilet paper—and disposing of the “flushable” products with other waste materials in the trash—property owners can not only avoid potential inconveniences and costs, but also help keep sewer rates low. 

Boelman said that’s solid advice for everyone, not just those who live in town. 

“For people in the country with septic tanks, it can be a big problem too,” he remarked. 

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