The danger with flushing ‘unflushables’
The bulk buying of toilet roll has been witnessed across the world as a human reaction to the ongoing COVID-10 pandemic.
From Australia to the Netherlands, the UK to the US, shelves have been frantically emptied as consumers unnecessarily panic buy huge packets of toilet rolls.
With others struggling to get hold of what they need, it’s leading to more people flushing “unflushable” alternatives such as wipes and kitchen towels down their toilets.
As a result, UK utility Thames Water has reminded its customers these items don’t break down in pipes and can combine with fats, oils and grease (FOG) to create fatbergs.
It warned that the increase in unflushables could cause “sewage to build up and flood homes, businesses and the environment”.
The utility said it is facing "the potential for an increase in staff absence in the coming weeks" and has asked its customers to "help lighten the workload by being careful what they flush".
"Fatbergs grow slowly, so it's hard to say if coronavirus has had an impact on our sewers at this stage but, as always, we’d urge everyone to only flush the 3Ps – pee, poo and paper – to help avoid problems in the future,” said Matt Rimmer, head of waste networks at Thames Water.
The message follows a member survey conducted in the US by the AWWA asking about anticipated business operations challenges caused by COVID-19 – the top result was “Absenteeism/continuity of operations”.
A test of public health infrastructure
Dr Tom Curran, who also goes by the alias “Dr Fatberg”, believes the current societal changes could also see a change in which materials block pipes.
“Due to a knock-on impact from the coronavirus on the restaurant business, as people become reluctant to eat out, then discharges of fat, oil and grease will be reduced going into sewers from these sources,” said the lecturer at UCD School of Biosystems and Food Engineering, University College Dublin. “In this scenario, wet wipes are more likely to become the major cause of blockages.”
“On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak of fatbergs is the last thing people need.”
Speaking to Aquatech Online, Curran added: “On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak of fatbergs is the last thing people need.”
He said: “The building of sewer networks has been one of the greatest contributions to improvements in public health, but this infrastructure could be severely tested in the months ahead, ironically due to human behaviour in the current public health crisis.”
Avoiding unnecessary increased health risks
Prof Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management, said they are witnessing shortages of not only toilet paper but kitchen and industrial paper towels.
In a Guardian article headlined ‘UK’s sewage system in danger of gridlock from toilet paper substitutes’, he said that if such alternatives are used as a replacement for toilet paper, “our sewage systems could readily become blocked with the resulting chaos and increased health risks associated with this”.
He said: “Ultimately, water companies may not have the infrastructure and equipment to unblock the sewer system.”
An expensive challenge
It’s estimated that there are over 300,000 sewer blockages across the UK annually.
On average, water utilities spend millions each year unblocking sewers from FOG-related blockages.
South West Water in the UK estimates it spends £4.5 million per year, while Thames Water spends £18 million every year clearing 75,000 blockages from its sewers.
This includes unclogging five house blockages and removing 30 tonnes of material from just one of its wastewater treatment works every day.