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No toilet paper? Don’t flush anything else

By Kirsti Marohn

One of the responses to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a run on toilet paper at stores in Minnesota and across the country, leaving bare shelves at many retailers.

That’s leading wastewater treatment operators to worry that people will use — and flush — other products instead that could cause havoc on sewer systems if they run out of toilet paper.

“That means people are more likely to use other products around their home,” said Sara Heger, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. “They’re very likely paper products, but paper products that aren’t designed to break down.”

So now, some Minnesota cities are putting out public announcements asking people not to flush paper towels, napkins, tissues or rags in lieu of toilet paper. They’re also asking people to avoid flushing disposable wipes used for cleaning or personal hygiene, which have been causing problems in sewer pipes for years.

Even though those wipes are often labeled “flushable,” that’s misleading, Heger said. They accumulate in the sewer system, where they can combine with fats, oil and grease to create massive “fatbergs” that have caused extensive damage in some cities, including London and New York.

In Rochester, Minn., workers already have to clean the screens at the city’s water reclamation plant twice a week. That’s due to the accumulation of wipes and other items such as feminine products, condoms and dental floss, said Chelsea Wiegand, an environmental specialist with the city.

“The rule of thumb is just never dispose of anything in the toilet besides toilet paper and human waste,” Wiegand said. “And that includes wipes of any kind.”

If people do use products other than toilet paper, they should be disposed of in the garbage, Heger said. She also said antibacterial cleaning wipes shouldn’t be flushed, because they kill the good bacteria that helps a sewer system break down waste.

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