Can’t Flush That: Educating Sewer Users about What Not to Flush

As countries across the globe began confirming more cases of COVID-19 and news of mandatory quarantines hit, there was a run on many household goods, including toilet paper. The paper industry has ramped up production to meet the demand, but meanwhile, local sewer collection systems and wastewater treatment plants are seeing an uptick in blockages caused by a myriad of products never intended to be flushed. 

Why it’s not actually ‘flushable’

The biggest culprit to sewer blockages is wipes marketed by their producers as “flushable.” As the New York City Department of Environmental Protection <embed link> points out, “a product labeled ‘flushable’ generally means it will clear your toilet bowl. It does not mean it will clear your pipes or break down in the sewer system or at a wastewater treatment plant.” America’s largest city spends an estimated $18.8 million annually to degrease sewer pipes, clean up sewer backups, and repair treatment plant equipment damaged by wipes.

Whether you’re using baby wipes, disinfectant wipes, or cosmetic wipes, the big difference between wipes and toilet paper that wreck such havoc is the non-woven nature of the material. Most consumers don’t understand these convenient, lightweight, and often cost-effective products don’t break down like woven toilet paper, which quickly degrades as it travels through the sewer system.

Effective education is critical

Working with communities on outreach campaigns to educate users about what is and isn’t appropriate to flush down their household drains, we’ve learned that keeping the message simple is important. As far as toilets are concerned, a simple rule of thumb that makes it easy for folks to remember is “The Four Ps.” If it’s not pee, poop, puke, or toilet paper, it shouldn’t be flushed. FOG outreach campaigns have also helped educate public sewer users about the dangers of dumping cooking refuse and food scraps down the drain.   

Residents care about the impacts of sewer blockages, not the details of how they are created. Focusing on how their behavior (flushing wipes, for example) leads to problems is the most effective way to communicate with them. Especially when coupled with warnings that wipes and other materials can cost homeowners upwards of $10,000 in damage to household plumbing, let alone what it will cost the city or town. As more people stay home during the pandemic to flatten the curve, we are encouraging the communities in which we operate facilities and other municipalities to communicate with sewer users about this issue. City officials can include notices in emailed newsletters, on social media, or as informational bill inserts or mailings.

York Sewer District provides wastewater treatment for a small community on the coast of southern Maine that sees a large influx of seasonal residents and tourists during the summer. We have worked with the district to develop proactive communication with users about the dangers of flushing wipes, which dovetails on the district’s outreach program regarding FOG that includes new rules for area restaurants. This included adapting the National Association of Clean Water Agencies graphic for one of their fleet vehicles as a highly visible education tool.  We continue to work with the district to create custom communications, including bill inserts, that drive home key messages about the impact wipes cause to the environment, York’s beloved beaches, economy, and ratepayers. The materials are developed with community input to help focus the messaging on actual customer concerns and convey best practices. 

Many cities, states, and organizations have already developed such campaigns. For those just getting started communicating with users on this issue, using these materials is an effective shortcut. For those with more sophisticated needs, custom materials may make more sense. Here are some examples of well-designed campaigns:

Developing unique outreach materials is hard in the best of times. We can help identify existing materials for you to use or help create custom campaigns tailored to your specific needs.


Tom Hazlett Business Unit Leader Municipal

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