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‘Flushable’ wipes are making a mess in Bellingham’s sewers

‘Flushable’ wipes are clogging Bellingham’s sewers

It turns out flushable wipes aren't so flushable, or biodegradable, after all, say Bellingham officials at Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant.
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It turns out flushable wipes aren't so flushable, or biodegradable, after all, say Bellingham officials at Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“Flushable wipes” are a pain in the drain, according to people who work at the business end of toilet plumbing and sewer pipes.

Call them what you will, but products like Wet Ones, FreshCare or Dude Wipes aren’t biodegradable and do nothing but clog the system.

“There’s no such thing as a flushable wipe,” said Eric Johnston, assistant public works director-operations for the city of Bellingham.

Some $2 million is spent annually to keep the city’s 300 miles of sewer mains flowing, and its 25 pump stations are cleaned monthly to remove grease and flushable wipes, Johnston said in an email.

“The only thing that should go down the drain is water, toilet paper, and things that come out of your body,” he said in a telephone interview with The Bellingham Herald.

No wipes or hygiene products of any kind should go swirling down — and that also goes for grease, oil, medication and chemicals, he said.

Just put wipes in the trash, because that’s where they’re headed anyway, he said.

“Eventually it gets to the pump station or treatment plant,” Johnston said. “All of that detritus gets bagged, collected and hauled to a landfill. If you don’t throw away the wipes, we have to.”

Johnston said that 4.3 billion gallons of water flowed through the city’s wastewater treatment plant at Post Point south of Fairhaven last year.

Wipes sometimes clog residential plumbing, causing headaches for homeowners.

But in the city sewer, they’re a full-blown migraine.

That’s because so-called flushable wipes — which gained popularity in the 1990s — don’t dissolve like toilet paper.

Instead, they collect on underground sewer screens, coagulating into gobs of goo called fatbergs and gumming up the works.

“If you take a cleaning wipe and flush it down the drain, we have to remove it and it goes to the landfill,” Johnston said. “We do have crews whose entire job is to keep those screens clear.”

So why do the companies that make such wipes continue to advertise them as “flushable”?

“It’s a really high topic of discussion,” Johnston said. “We use them in my home, but we put them in the trash can.”

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.

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