What are people flushing in SE Minnesota?

Despite all the memes and comments on social media— plus the empty shelves in the grocery stores— there's no replacement for toilet paper, at least when it comes to flushing.

Jacob Price, an operator at the Water Reclamation Plant, pulls a mass of wipes and non-flushable matter out of the waste stream at the plant. (Contributed photo)

Despite all the memes and comments on social media — plus the empty shelves in the grocery stores — there's no replacement for toilet paper, at least when it comes to flushing.

"It's almost like a joke going around," said Chelsea Wiegand, environmental specialist with Rochester's Water Reclamation Plant." We're not telling you what to use to wipe, we're just telling you not to flush it."

From big cities like Rochester and Austin to smaller towns like Pine Island, wastewater treatment facilities are bracing for an onslaught of items that should never be flushed.

"We have about 20 lift stations around town," said Steve Lang, public works director for the city of Austin. "Those are the first areas that will be impacted by people putting 'flushable' wipes or other non-degrading items in the toilet."

Lang repeated what wastewater officials across Southeast Minnesota — likely, around the world — are saying: Just because something is called "flushable" on the box doesn't mean it belongs down the toilet. In fact, other than toilet paper and human waste, nothing should get flushed. That, Lang said, includes everything from facial tissues and paper towels to feminine products and GI Joe figures.


"We'll likely see some issues by the end of the week with our pumps if that's occurring," he said, referring to an influx of items beyond waste and toilet paper getting flushed.

Lang said any problem with increasing amounts of non-flushable items coming down the wastewater infrastructure will likely show up at the lift stations or at the homeowners' own plumbing before theitems make it to the wastewater treatment plant.

"It'll take a while for them to build up," he said.

Todd Robertson, public works director for the city of Pine Island, said thus far the wastewater plant in his city hasn't seen an influx of non-flushable items. But anecdotal conversations he and his staff have had lead him to believe it's just a matter of time.

"Right now, we really haven't seen anything," Robertson said. "I was in there this morning, and it didn't look out of the ordinary."

That hasn't stopped Robertson and the city from putting out reminders to the city's residents. A list of items not to beflushed went up on the city's Facebook page. That same reminder will likely be in this month's water bills.

Roberts said the public has a long history of flushing things that shouldn't be flushed. Everything from feminine products to dental floss makes its way through the system to the wastewater treatment plant.

Wiegand said that long before the COVID-19 outbreak had people hoarding toilet paper, making others consider alternatives to TP, Rochester has seen an uptick of items flushed that shouldn't be. One of the biggest culprits has been "flushable" wipes, she said.


The problem, Wiegand said, is that anything other than toilet paper is not designed to break down the same way, so it builds up with other items to create clogs.

"They have a huge potential to cause problems in home plumbing, in the sewer pipes and at the plant," she said.

While she worries about city infrastructure, her bigger concern is that homeowners will flush things that clog up their own toilets or the pipes that run from their homes to the sewer pipes in the street, mainly because the pipes in and from the house are usually of a smaller diameter, meaning they're more likely to clog.

"It's not fun to have raw wastewater in your house," Wiegand said. "You don't want to have a plumber coming into your house, especially now."

Like Robertson and Lang, Wiegand said Rochester officials expect to see more non-flushable items in the system soon.

"I can't think of a time there's been a toilet paper shortage," she said. "I had to end up borrowing from a friend."

While the simple answer to what can and cannot be flushed is the response "human waste and toilet paper," it's good to remember what cannot and should not be flushed.

Instead, these items should be thrown away in a wastebasket:


• Paper towels.

• Napkins.

• Kleenex and other tissues.

• Wet wipes/baby wipes, even those labeled as "flushable" wipes.

• Diapers.

• Feminine hygiene products.

• Gauze/Band-Aids.

• Dental floss.

• Antibacterial or disinfecting wipes.

Source: Cities of Winona, Rochester, Pine Island and Austin.


Related Topics: PINE ISLAND
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