91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Miller: "Flushable" wipes making a mess of our sewer systems

A picture of wet wipes removed from sewer system.
Macomb County Public Works Office
Used baby wipes and other items are collected in a disposal bin after being removed from a sewer in Clinton Township by the Macomb County Public Works Office.

Macomb County’s Public Works Commissioner wants the public to be aware of a growing problem menacing municipal sewer systems: flushable wipes.

Candice Miller says those wipes are “causing probably about 90 percent of the sewer problems that we’re having right now.”

“They sort of get together and they almost act like a rope,” Miller said. “They're choking pumps, sanitary sewer pumps. And they’re causing huge backups.”

Some brands of the wet wipes, which are used for everything from wiping babies’ bottoms to removing makeup to quick house cleaning, are labeled “flushable.” The problem, Miller says (and science agrees) is that they’re really not — at least, not in the way toilet paper is.

“They may be flushable, but they are not biodegradable,” Miller said. “And they are causing havoc with our underground sewer systems all across the country.”

The wipes are a particular problem for the machinery behind the underground sewer system, clogging up and twisting around motors that power the pumps that keep things moving.

At one Macomb County pump station, “We have bins after bins after bins of dumpsters full of these wipes, trying to eliminate them before they clog up the sanitary sewer,” Miller said. “But we’re not successful in every case.”

The wipes caused a very smelly problem at Muskegon’s wastewater treatment plant recently. And the U.K. is now considering a ban on wet wipes altogether, in part because they’ve overrun sewer systems and heped cause disgusting blockages known as “fatbergs.”

Miller isn’t proposing going that far — at least, not yet. But she does want Michigan’s state legislature to make sure all those wipes come with packaging labeled “non-flushable,” and make sure the public knows that wipes don’t go down the toilet.

Whichever state lawmaker wants to take this up, Miller says that “every operator of a municipal sanitary sewer system in the state of Michigan will stand behind them in a second. Because all of us are talking about what a huge problem this is.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
Related Content