‘Flushable’ wipes a problem for Tahoe sewers


By Kurt Althof

Although the sewer systems around Lake Tahoe are all carefully engineered and designed to export waste from the Tahoe basin, the complex process can be dramatically affected when certain materials are flushed down the toilet.

These materials include so-called “flushable wipes,” paper towels, cotton swabs, feminine hygiene products, condoms, facial tissues (Kleenex), dental floss, or anything other than toilet paper and human waste.

In fact, toilet paper is the only “product” that is designed to break down quickly and pass harmlessly through the sewer system. The sewer system is not designed to be a garbage disposal. The consequences of using it that way are sometimes harmful, particularly in such an environmentally sensitive area as Lake Tahoe.

There is nothing pleasant about a sewer backup, but a sewer backup in your home is not only stomach

churning, it can also be costly and a significant health concern. If that sewer backup makes its way into Lake Tahoe, or any part of the environment, it creates significant challenges and harm.

Most of the time a sewer “spill” is preventable and caused by the misuse of the sewer system.

Wipes clog sewer systems, even ones that say “flushable” on the container. Photo/TCPUD

The sewer system’s No. 1 enemy is the misnamed “flushable wipe.” Many wipe products are marketed as “flushable,” and although they do go down the toilet, they cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage and numerous sewer back-ups each year. To make matters worse, the concept of flushable wipes has established a perception that wipes in general are flushable and subtly encourages customers to flush any and all wipes.

Although makers of these so called “flushable wipes” contend their products break down appropriately in the sewer system, test after test proves this is not the case.

When you or your neighbors flush non-flushable items, the risk of a sewer backup increases significantly, not only in the lateral that connects your house to the main, but in the main system and in sewer pumps. Regular routine maintenance and inspections of sewer mains are performed throughout the region, but this cannot catch every problem before it causes a backup and damages homes, businesses, and the environment.

The best approach is to keep it simple: nothing but human waste and toilet paper should go down the toilet. Flushing anything else will damage your household plumbing, the environment, and the wastewater system.

Kurt Althof is the grants and community information administrator for the Tahoe City Public Utility District. This article is republished from the summer 2017 edition of Tahoe In Depth.

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Comments (1)
  1. Anal Analytical says - Posted: July 22, 2017

    I think that Mr. Althof and other disposal providers (septic tanks come immediately to mind) are fighting a losing battle if eliminating elimination assistance is their goal. If you speak with any doctor whose practice includes the human posterior you’d find that folks use wipes because their situation demands them – wipes, in other words, have become the non-surgical relief for non critical patients commonly referred to in commercials as “hemorhoid sufferers.” And business is, one might say, “booming.”

    Yet, as any user of wipes will tell you, there’s are huge differences regarding disposability among “wipes” described as “disposable.” Mr. Althof (are we really certain that “Althof” isn’t also a psueodnym?) and others laboring at the receiving end of disposability, would find greater success in seeking definition and practical limits to what may be described on a label as disposable and what may not. I realize that we are in an era of reduced government business interference but, given his age and demeanor, I’m positive that this issue is one which Mr. Trump would be delighted to stand behind.