Photo: Wipes must be manually raked off a bar grate every day at a lift station in Eagan.
The MPCA is seeking a ban on the word “flushable” on the labels of disposable wipes after dozens of Minnesota communities have reported that wipes cause costly problems for their wastewater systems.
Disposable wipes — used for changing diapers, personal hygiene, housecleaning and more — cause major problems when flushed down toilets. Because they don’t break down the way toilet paper does, these wipes clog homeowner and municipal sewer pipes, put stress on community wastewater collection and treatment equipment, and cause cities to spend thousands on clearing clogs and premature equipment replacement.
Wipes snag on any imperfection in sewer pipes, catch passing debris and grease, and create a “ball” that will grow to plug the pipe. Municipalities must manually clean screens or remove clogs.
The MPCA will ask the 2016 Minnesota Legislature to ban “flushable,” “septic safe” or “sewer safe” labeling from nonwoven disposable products (wipes) sold in Minnesota and require the products’ labels to have a “do not flush” message. These labeling changes would help change public behavior and over time reduce the amount of such wipes being flushed. Fewer wipes flushed would reduce operation and maintenance costs for municipalities across the state.
What wipes are costing Minnesota cities — and their residents
Minnetonka (pop. 48,370) — Starting in 2007, Tom Pletcher and his team with the city of Minnetonka’s sanitary sewer system have had to clear wipes from pumps every three days. Pletcher, the city’s water and sewer utilities field supervisor, says that wipes have been a major factor in all of Minnetonka’s sewer backups in the past five years and have contributed to early equipment failures. Clearing backups costs the city $1,000-$1,500 for each clog, and Minnetonka has 8-10 backups every year. Once or twice a year, clogs cause sewage to back up into homes. This, Pletcher says, is the worst: “How do you put a cost on filling someone’s basement with sewage?”
Avon (pop. 970) — Avon’s utilities team checks pumps in the town’s sewer system every day. When there is a wipes clog, they often have to use a crane to pull the pumps from 15 or 20 feet underground in order to clear them. In the past few years, the city has spent about $73,000 to upgrade lift station pumps. Avon’s utilities supervisor Jon Forsell says the older pumps were still functional, but not designed to handle wipes. In addition, the city spends almost $4,000 a year on labor to clear wipes out of pumps.
Lewiston (pop. 1,591) — Lewiston was spending about $15,000 a year for a company to clear wipes clogs in its lift station pumps. Then the city bought a “Muffin Monster” — a machine that grinds up wipes before they get to pumps — for $70,000. “We wouldn’t have had to put it in if not for wipes,” says public works director Curt Benter. The average monthly sewer charge in Lewiston is $75.66.
St. Peter (pop. 11,439) — The main station in St. Peter’s collection system has pumps that can handle six-inch solids. But balls of wipes coming through the system have clogged the pumps over and over. In the past five years, the city has spent about $100,000 on clearing clogs and repairing pumps after wipes gummed them up. The average monthly sewer charge for St. Peter residents is $70.80.