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No ‘wipes in the pipes,’ say area environmental service officials

By Dave Nichols and Rebecca White The Spokesman-Review

One of the unexpected consequences of the global pandemic has been the almost inexplicable run on toilet paper.

With grocery and bulk stores having trouble keeping their shelves stocked with the product, consumers are turning to alternative methods to stay fresh.

But while moistened baby wipes, facial tissue and – gasp – even paper towels might do the trick for you, Spokane County Environmental Services says there is an unintended victim in the practice: your pipes.

That’s right, those so-called “flushable” wipes or paper towels need to be tossed in the garbage, or you could do serious damage to the wastewater process.

“When it says that on a package, folks read that and think, ‘Well, this is safe for me to do. They wouldn’t lie to me,’ ” said Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, the Public Works Information and Outreach Manager for Spokane County Environmental Services.

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “We don’t have a major problem right now, but we don’t want one either.”

Each flush goes from your home or office to the community’s pipes, pumps and grinders for eventual treatment. Toilet paper is made to disintegrate quickly in water.

But wipes, paper towel, dinner napkins, diapers, feminine hygiene products and other materials don’t break down as readily – or at all – and clog pipes throughout the process.

“When these things hit the sewer lines, they clump up,” Wheatley-Billeter said. “It’s like a clog in an artery, and then nothing can get through.”

That can lead to odor and waste coming back into your home – or to a costly breakdown at any point in the process.

Wheatley-Billeter was succinct in what should go into the bowl: “There are four things that can go down the toilet and be flushed safely: pee, poo, puke and toilet paper. And that’s it.”

Marlene Feist, Public Works director of strategic development for the city of Spokane, said she had heard anecdotally that more people may be using flushable wipes, or other alternatives to toilet paper, when they couldn’t find what they were looking for on the grocery store shelves.

Feist said the city hadn’t had any serious issues yet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a “ticking time bomb” clogging the city’s pipes.

She said it’s fine to resort to other products if there’s a shortage, as long as they aren’t flushed down the toilet.

“If you need to use those things, great, just throw them in the garbage,” Feist said.

Wheatley-Billeter said she understands the strain folks are under during the pandemic.

“I’m sorry folks are getting loaded up with dos and don’ts right now, but this is a message we’ve tried to get out, year after year. We’re trying to get this word out to folks, to please, please, put it in the garbage.”

Wheatley-Billeter wanted to remind county residents the Regional Solid Waste System and transfer stations remain open to the public. But like everywhere else, she reiterated that appropriate social distancing should be in effect.

“We’re here for trash and recycling, yard trash and everything else and will continue to serve the public,” she said. “However, if you are not feeling well, don’t come. If you’re sick, stay home.”