Baby Wipes Wiping Out Maine Municipal Budgets

May 16, 2014

The Portland Water District wants you to think before you flush - that is, if you plan on throwing something other than toilet paper down the toilet. Flushed baby wipes are clogging pipes and pumps across the state and the country, creating a mess and costing cities and towns tens of thousands of dollars to fix.

  What gets flushed down the toilet eventually makes its way to a pumping station like this one in Westbrook. It's a small, cylindrical brick building.

"This is where all the material comes," says Tom Hume, a senior wastewater operator. He opens the door to the station that extends three stories below ground to where wastewater is pumped in.

Aubrey Strause shows a flushed baby wipe.
Credit Patty Wight / MPBN

But wastewater often includes much more than biodegradable human waste. "We find action figures, $20 bills, clumps of hair." And baby wipes, says Scott Firman, director of wastewater services for the Portland Water District.

Not so long ago, waste water employees had to shut down clogged pumps and manually scoop out these little treasures.

"Toilet paper will break down, and a baby wipe just won't break down," Firman says. "And I don't think consumers understand the difference between a baby wipe and toilet paper, because they kind of do the same thing. Unfortunately, a baby wipe does a better job. That's why people tend to use them."

The Maine Water Environment Association says state and industry surveys show that about 40 percent of people who buy baby wipes don't have babies. And that's a potential problem, because when people aren't thinking about the responsible disposal of wipes with diapers there's a tendency to flush used wipes down the toilet. Association President Aubrey Strause (left, with discarded baby wipe) says the wipe market - from baby wipes to flushables - is growing exponentially.

"So the more products that are on the market, the more advertising there is, the more new markets they're targeting - like young men are now a big target of flushable wipes," Strause says. "So the more products and the better the marketing is, the more we're seeing them."

Literally. The Portland Water District has been doing regular counts of the baby wipes in its system as part of a campaign to educate consumers. On Thursday, a blue tarp spread on the floor of the Westbrook Treatment Facility displayed a grid of perfectly intact - if a bit soiled - baby wipes that they fished out.

Strause says before the campaign they found about 30 wipes per 100,000 gallons of water. Now they're finding about 10. But even the 30-wipe count caused enough of a problem that Portland spent $4.5 million installing special screens to prevent clogs.

"That's the actual screen right there, with the different rakes. It's on a continuous chain," says wastewater operator Tom Hume, as he shows the screen, which is actually a huge machine that extends the entire three-story length of the pumping station.

At the bottom, a series of rakes pull baby wipes and other undesirables out of the water, carry them up to a compartment that compresses, rinses, and wrings them out, then shoots them through a pipe into a long plastic bag that drops into a dumpster. "It's like having an extra couple weeks vacation," Hume says. "It made the whole job a lot easier."

But a lot more expensive - about 800 bucks per pound of baby wipes - just to transfer them to the trash, where they were supposed to go in the first place. And while Portland could afford special machines like this, many other towns can't and have to resort to more labor-intensive methods.

Tom Hume says there is a simpler solution. "Don't flush anything - whatever they put in the water, we have to take out, one way or the other. It's all about clean water."

As for flushable wipes, some are better than others. But the Portland Water District advises that when in doubt, throw it out. And remember that the toilet isn't a trash can.