Official implores: Don’t flush ‘flushable’ wipes

JACKSON — As sanitizing wipes fly off the shelves during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson’s wastewater treatment director reminds people that they should not end up in the town’s sewage.

Johnny Ziem wages an eternal war against those who flush so-called “flushable wipes” — a misnomer he and his colleagues around the country resent. They fit down the drain, sure, but the material doesn’t break down like toilet paper, and they often cause sewer pipes to clog.

“The toilet is not a trash can,” Ziem said. “What comes out of your body and toilet paper are the only two things that should go in the toilet.”

Now, with wipes in use more than ever, the risk is greater. One person flushing wipes could cause a serious backup. A significant portion of the Jackson population doing so could be “disastrous,” Ziem said.

Just this past December, a clump of wipes got lodged in an East Jackson sewer pipe, nearly causing it to overflow into the street.

But this isn’t only a problem for municipal infrastructure, Ziem said. Wipes can just as easily catch in any business’ or resident’s “lateral line” — pipes that connect to the town’s sewer mains — for which they are privately responsible.

In the past Ziem has purchased newspaper ads to advise readers against flushing wipes. Now he and other wastewater managers in the region, including the Wilson Sewer District, plan to pool resources to buy another ad, this one more clearly tied to the coronavirus outbreak.

Other unsuitable items might find their way into toilets as people search for alternatives amid a toilet paper shortage. Though manufacturers are producing as much as ever, heightened demand continues to empty shelves as quickly as they can be restocked.

Substitutes include paper towels and newspaper. But, like “flushable” wipes, they aren’t made to disintegrate in water, though Ziem said using small pieces should be fine in desperate times.

“Not the ideal situation,” he said, “but if you get to a point where there’s no other choice, that’s the only choice you have.”

He encouraged people not to hoard more toilet paper than they need for the short term so that everyone can maintain a supply. He noted that shipments of the stuff are continuing.

“By all indications,” he said, “they’re still going to be coming into the valley.”

Another option, Ziem said, is a bidet. Though not common in the U.S., the water jets are widely used around the world. Arguably better than toilet paper, they are easy to install.