Coronavirus and use of wet wipes blocking sewers, leading to challenges at treatment plants

The term “flushable” for many years has created challenges for those in the wastewater treatment sector.

Progress was being made thanks to multiple education campaigns about what should and should not go down the toilet, but the coronavirus pandemic caused a setback.

“We’ve been tracking the use, the problem of wet wipes over the last three years and before the lockdown we saw a reduction of up to 10 per cent, but during lockdown we saw an increase of up to 10 per cent,” said Dina Gillespie, Thames Water area operations manager at Mogden Sewage Treatment Works.

“So a difference overall of about 20 per cent overall during lockdown.”

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With two million customers, the facility is one of the largest in Greater London.

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“On average we receive about 6,000 litres a second of sewage. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in seven minutes,” Gillespie told Global News during a site tour.

Every day, workers check 88 settlement tanks to see if anything has made its way through to the end of the treatment process.

Despite best efforts, it does.

Read more: Sewage can give a week’s extra warning of coronavirus spikes: study

Each day, 10 tonnes of dried “rag” is trucked to the landfill.

“Rag” is the term used for the congealed mass of disposable moist towelettes, sanitary products, cotton buds and bits of plastic that have been flushed and made their way to the treatment plant.

The material can cause damage to equipment, takes up labour and can lead to blockages throughout the entire sewer system.

During the pandemic, Thames Water officials say they’ve received more calls about blockages, but the U.K. public works department is not the only one.

Municipalities around the world are in the same situation.

Read more: Coronavirus traces found in Spanish sewage sample from March 2019

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In June, for example, the Associated Press reported that Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney started a COVID-19 briefing by asking residents to be careful about what they flushed.

Many products say they are flushable or claim to be biodegradable. Experts, however, say just because it can fit down a toilet doesn’t mean that’s where it belongs.

The message from Gillespie is clear and simple.

“The only thing that you should be flushing down a toilet are pee, poo and paper. Bin it, don’t block it,” Gillespie said. ​

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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