18 March 2020

Paper towels and wet wipes shouldn't be flushed, Icon Water warns

| Michael Weaver
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Canberra's sewerage system

Foreign objects that have formed blockages in the sewerage treatment plant and pump stations. Photo: Supplied.

If you think the toilet paper shortage is a problem, spare a thought for the sewerage system, which is becoming blocked as Canberrans desperately search for alternatives to toilet paper.

Icon Water operations manager Rob Allen said the problem with using alternatives to toilet paper such as wipes, tissues and paper towel is that they don’t behave the same way in the sewerage system.

“Wet wipes, in particular, are not designed to break down in the same way as toilet paper,” Mr Allen told Region Media.

“A wet wipe will maintain its shape for quite some time. It’s a very durable product. Both paper towel, wet wipes and even tissues are designed to hold their shape so that they wipe up gunk.”

Mr Allen said toilet paper substitutes are now clogging Canberra’s 2300 km sewerage system.

The sewerage system starts with thinner pipes from people’s residences to a larger pipeline under the streets before it is eventually treated at the ACT’s main wastewater treatment plant near Holt.

A giant screen at the plant does what it can to remove approximately one million litres of sludge each day.

Sewage is treated and released into the Molonglo River. It then flows into the Murrumbidgee River and drains into the Murray-Darling Basin river system. Water leaving the plant has been thoroughly treated, so it returns to the natural water cycle free of pollution and can be reused by other towns further downstream.

However, Mr Allen said foreign objects like wipes are clinging to and clogging the system, so Icon Water is urging Canberrans to put these items in the bin rather than down the drain.

“Wipes will quite happily grab hold of any tree roots or other foreign objects in the pipeline, and when you add in fats and greases and oils, we end up with little blockages through the network that leads to a number of issues within our broader sewerage network.”

Canberra's sewerage system

Wet wipes have been causing major issues in Canberra’s sewerage network. Photo: Supplied.

Mr Allen said homeowners are responsible for blockages on their property which are very expensive to repair – and repairs also expensive for Icon Water.

“Last year, Icon Water spent over $1 million in reactive sewer cleaning events and this year looks like it’s going to go beyond that quite easily.

“We’ve seen an increase in blockages and also an increase in the material that’s hitting the screens at the sewerage treatment plant.

“We’ve got crews clearing the sewer mains and pipes 24/7 now and it’s no surprise this has coincided with the lack of toilet paper in supermarkets. These wipes are not helping,” Mr Allen said.

He urged Canberrans to only flush the three Ps: pee, poo and (toilet) paper.

“We do realise that some people may be caught short on toilet paper at the moment and they may be inclined to use wet wipes or paper towel or tissues.

“If they do need to use those, we strongly recommend they bin them rather than flush them. It will look like it’s flushed and gone away, but it doesn’t break down in the network and causes issues for us further down the line,” he said.

Items found in Canberra's sewerage system

Giant screens that catch many of the foreign objects at Icon Water’s treatment plant. Photo: Supplied.

“You often see the blockages in the smaller diameter household lines. The wipes cling on to things like roots and the backup will often present itself on a footpath and sometimes into an overflow relief gully at the back of a household. Not all houses have them and quite often the sewer will back up into your showers and floor ways.

“It’s not a very pleasant thing for people to find and it’s often a very expensive problem to get fixed,” Mr Allen said.

Icon Water says people who need to report a blockage should contact their faults and emergencies line by phoning 6248 3111 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Or people can make an enquiry via Icon Water’s contact page.

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