Wet wipe ‘fatberg’ highlights a national water utility dilemma

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The scourge of wet-wipe blockages gained national attention last week after the removal of a one-tonne ‘fatberg’ from a NSW pump station but ongoing efforts to address the problem are gaining steam.

The amalgam of wet wipes and sewage caused a blow-out at Eleebana Station near Lake Macquarie, with three-quarters of the fatberg removed with specialised equipment and the remaining 300kg removed by hand.

Sydney Water Media Manager Kieran Smith said this is but one example of what has become a huge problem for water utilities nation wide.

“We have a situation where people believe that they have got a product that is suitable to flush, but from a water utility perspective it’s actually causing huge problems,” Smith said.

“With the way our systems work, [wipes] need to be like toilet paper, which disperses within a few seconds of being flush. With wipes, we haven’t actually found one that breaks down quickly.

“In fact, we haven’t found one that breaks down at all.”

In the past two years, Sydney Water has removed more than 1 million kilograms of non-biodegradable matter from hundreds of pumping stations in its network, at the cost of millions of dollars annually.

“If we don’t clear them up, it’s going to back-flow to somewhere else in the system, often through an overflow point into a local creek or channel, or right back into customer’s own properties,” Smith said.  

“Some really bad outcomes come if we don’t clear the blockages.”

The problem led to a customer research project, which sought to uncover consumer’s persecutions on wastewater systems and flushing habits.

“We did a big batch of research. We wanted to understand their awareness, not just of flushing habits, but their awareness of wastewater systems,” Smith said.

“It was really alarming. Their awareness was really low. How has it got to this stage that generations of our customers now just know nothing about what they pay for in their bills? We’ve got a bit of a job here.”

Further to the lack of understanding, Smith said the research revealed other useful information regarding consumer behaviours, particularly surrounding packaging.

“The most prominent flushers are blokes, men aged 15 to 44 years of age,” Smith said.

“But it’s women who are more likely to buy them and they are heavily influenced by packaging. They want to do the right thing, and they are buying ones that say ‘biodegradable’ or ‘flushable’ thinking that it’s a safer option.”

“But we would contest that there is no such thing as a flushable wipe, because they don’t break down quickly enough.”

Considering the misleading nature of wet-wipe packaging, Smith said Sydney Water has moved to engage with manufacturers directly, to start discussing ways that the problem might be solved.

“We’ve directly engaged with the peak industry groups, the Australian Food and Groceries Council and the representatives of wet wipes manufacturers. We had a forum in April last year. It was mainly a day of putting issues on the table,” Smith said.

“The pace from that hasn’t been as quick as we would like, but there has also been some work to develop an international standard for flushable products, with rules and thresholds of what can be classed as flushable.

“People don’t want to think about it, they want to flush and forget. And largely, we’d like them to, but we need them to be flushing the correct thing, which is only toilet paper.”

Further to industry engagement, Sydney Water launched the ‘Keep wipes out of the pipes’ program in May 2015, aimed at engaging and attracting customer advocates.

Smith will be presenting a paper titled ‘Keep wipes out of pipes’ as part of the official program at the upcoming Ozwater’16, Australia’s international water conference and exhibition.

The event will be held in Melbourne on May 10–12. The full program can be viewed here.