Flushable wipes are not so flushable

Earlier this year, Elk River Wastewater Treatment Plant staff replaced a failing pump at the Highway 169 lift station. The pump had worn out earlier than expected due to the extra stress of pumping literally tons of non-flushable items the wastewater treatment equipment is not designed to handle.

Submitted photo
The fastest-growing culprits of wastewater system maintenance cost increases are products frequently advertised as “flushable” wipes. These moist towelettes appear harmless and are frequently used to clean baby bottoms, remove makeup, or handle quick cleanups. But they are wreaking havoc on wastewater equipment.

The replacement pump included a vortex impeller to better move the non-flushable materials at an additional cost of nearly $30,000. The city has 21 lift stations and the ongoing maintenance, premature replacement, and emergency repairs are increasingly adding costs to wastewater rate payers, according to a press release from the city of Elk River.

Lift stations pump collected waste from service areas to the primary service main which is fed to the wastewater treatment plant.

The fastest-growing culprits of wastewater system maintenance cost increases are products frequently advertised as “flushable” wipes. These moist towelettes appear harmless and are frequently used to clean baby bottoms, remove makeup, or handle quick cleanups. Unfortunately, they do not degrade before reaching the lift station pumps. Plugged pumps often overheat and fail with the trapped material in the impeller, which also includes dental floss, shop towels and grease.
In 2015, the city of Elk River joined a class action lawsuit with nine other Minnesota cities against a number of “flushable wipe” manufacturers. The products are marketed and labeled as “flushable” to convey their ability to be flushed down a toilet and pass through any wastewater treatment system without causing harm, which has been shown to be false. The frequently intact wipes not only clog pumps, but also further collect grease, hair and other items passing through the wastewater system.

The suit seeks reimbursement for repairs and replacement of damaged equipment and would require manufacturers to stop advertising the products as “flushable.”

The city asks people to make a difference by not flushing wipes or other products except for human waste and toilet paper.