OGDEN — When it comes to the items that are permissible to flush down a toilet, Giles Demke, president of The Water Environment Association of Utah, doesn’t mince words.
“Please be aware that flushing anything other than the ‘3 Ps’ (pee, poop and toilet paper) can cause problems with sewage collection and treatment,” said Demke, whose organization represents some 500 wastewater professionals, in a press release from the Utah Division of Water Quality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more people flushing items other than these “3 P’s” down toilets — like wipes, paper towels and napkins — the release says, causing an increase in “backed-up toilets and overflowing sewer lines in Utah and across the country.”
The “3 P’s” have become a rallying cry for professionals in the industry, and it’s used across the country, said Lance Wood, general manager of the Central Weber Sewer Improvement District.
When people flush wipes and paper products other than toilet paper, “it builds up in the sewer lines, and it causes some plugging,” Wood said, adding that “... all of these wipes that are coming out on the market that they say are flushable — yeah, they’re flushable, but (people) don’t realize that it also clogs up the system ... it clogs up pumps as well as pipelines.”
This problem has been less significant in the Central Weber area, Wood said, but it seems to be growing recently.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge to get the proper word out to the public,” he continued.
Wipes are thicker, and made of a different material than toilet paper, Wood said. Toilet paper is designed to disintegrate so that it doesn’t cause problems for sewer systems.
Like wipes, paper towels are also problematic, he said.
“Some of these paper towels ... are stronger than others, and the strength means they’re less degradable,” Wood said.
Toilet paper is designed to dissolve in liquids, while wipes and paper towels are designed to absorb liquids, the press release says.
Sewers that are clogged can overflow and contaminate lakes, rivers and reservoirs, potentially harming the people who recreate in those areas as well as wildlife, according to the release.
While those issues won’t happen in the average homeowner’s backyard, problems with their own plumbing could.
“The problem is if the lines get totally plugged, the sewage is going to back up in homes,” Wood said. “... Nobody wants to see sewage go into homes.”
To prevent this, residents should remember the “3 P’s” — which people usually do after hearing them, according to Wood.
“Utah sewer facilities recommend begging a roll of actual toilet paper off the neighbor, and spare the sewer collection and treatment systems problems,” Jill Jones, of the Wasatch Front Water Quality Council and Central Davis Sewer District, is quoted in the release. “Our employees can’t work from home, and no one wants their sewers shut off, so when you think of what you can do during this stressful time, don’t forget to make it a little easier on the sewer folks, too, by restricting what you flush down your toilet.”