Wipes are making one monster of a mess

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Tuesday's front-page expose ("Flushing Products That Won't Degrade Can Cause Nasty Backups") hit me like a pre-moistened cloth. My face contorted into a grimace I hadn't displayed since the last time I tried the blue plate special at Rosie's Diner.

Flushable wipes not flushable? Somebody needs to get to the bottom of this.

All the facts are there. Everyone from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies to Terry the Plumber of the North Hills agrees these wipes have less chance of disintegrating than a six-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.

"It's a good product if you want to stop a bullet, but it's not a good product to throw down the drain," said Terry Mertz, the plumber.

Mr. Mertz needed a high-pressure jetting machine to blast away a compact plug of glop that was longer than the Steelers' playoff odds. It took up 20 feet of sewer pipe. A third of his service calls can be laid at the damp feet of the flushable wipe industrial complex.

"If you want to see me,'' Mr. Mertz warned in the way Dirty Harry might have had he worn a tool belt instead of a .44 Magnum, "keep using them.''

Big Wipe is denying blame. A senior manager at Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Cottonelle's flushable wipes "for the entire family,'' said she has a team that regularly goes sewer diving. (Festive!) Her reports say 90 percent of what's down there causing problems are items that aren't supposed to be flushed, such as paper towels and feminine products.

Who you gonna believe, Big Wipe or the North Hills plumber who has the same surname as the irascible landlord on "I Love Lucy"? In Mertz, I trust. Plus Consumer Reports says the wipes don't break down easily and have led to raw sewage flooding basements.

It will take some heroic plumbing to slow the juggernaut that is Big Wipe. A trade group says wet wipes are a $6 billion a year industry, and business has been growing like the line to the women's room on Half-Price Cosmo Night. What happens next is no clearer than the pipes, but a 15-ton lump of wrongly flushed grease and wet wipes under the streets has shocked London in a way that only a bus-sized lump in a sewer can.

This monster can be viewed on the Internet. As endearing as British monsters can be, owners of bed-and-breakfasts around Loch Ness needn't worry about competition from this one. Remote camera footage accompanying the story in The Guardian shows something resembling Jabba the Hut's date for the prom.

The Guardian report said a crack team of sewage workers led by Gordon Hailwood waged an epic three-week battle amid a stench that could make a freight train take a dirt road. Much of the yuck was congealed cooking oil sent down the drains, but wet wipes were integral to the slime of the century.

"This is the biggest fatberg we've encountered -- we reckon it has to be the biggest such berg in British history,'' Mr. Hailwood said as he looked ahead to six weeks of repairs. "If we hadn't discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston."

I don't even know where Kingston is, but I'm scared.

Think of it. One could be innocently jaywalking across Liberty Avenue, never realizing there is a seething mass of grease and wipes that would terrify Ed Norton himself oozing toward a nearby manhole.

I don't use wet wipes but I am no innocent here. I have blithely sent grease down the garbage disposal, never realizing the havoc I was wreaking beneath my feet.

Alcosan pipes are anywhere from 36 inches to 10 feet in diameter, and even as you read this, cooking grease and wet wipes are forming an unholy alliance within them. The advice now is the same as it would be for any horror film.

Whatever you do, don't go in the basement.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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