While we know stormwater and heavy rain are the main cause of sewage pollution, we also know solving this problem isn’t a quick fix. Upgrading infrastructure is an expensive undertaking and right now, progress is not moving fast enough.
Recently, it was reported that Toronto alone has an average of 1,600 water main breaks a year.
For a closer look at what’s happening to wastewater in Canada, we met with Barry Orr – London’s Sewer Outreach and Control Inspector and Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG) representative. Barry was also the recipient of Water Canada’s 2015 “Water’s Next Award” in the government category for his national and international outreach efforts on protecting sewer systems.
To better understand the issue, Barry urges to focus on the basics. “Remember, sewer treatment was created to address the issue of plague. Water infrastructure was implemented decades ago because of public health and to stop the spread of disease and infection.”
Sewage pipes and sewage treatment plants were designed to meet the demands of communities. Stormwater pipes were designed to manage runoff. Back then, communities were smaller and weather was more predictable. Since then, population growth has increased dramatically and “100-year storms” are happening more frequently, leaving high demands on that same wastewater system. It hasn’t developed at a fast enough pace and it’s struggling to keep up.
We can’t control the weather. But until upgrading infrastructure becomes a priority, there are some things we can all do to help relieve our aging infrastructure’s daily struggles, while simultaneously helping to protect our waterways.
Barry is one of the first in Canada to speak about a massive issue troubling wastewater facilities around the world: Non-flushables.
According to Barry, “It’s important to remember what sewage treatment was designed for. The pipes that run from your home and workplace to the wastewater treatment plant, all the way to lakes and rivers were initially designed to carry 3 things: Pee, poop, and toilet paper. Nothing else.”
But as mentioned above, times have changed and our infrastructure hasn’t.
Manufacturers now add plastics to cosmetics. Microbeads are commonly found in soaps, skin cleansers, facial scrubs, and even toothpaste.
The label "flushable" is misleading. There is no current industry standard for flushability.
Marketing a product as flushable because it’s convenient encourages the idea that toilets are waste disposals. And if we go back to what Barry said – toilets are designed to carry pee, poop, and toilet paper – telling consumers to treat their toilet as a garbage is misleading. The result: the wastewater system is struggling to handle more than it was designed for.
“The number of non-flushables that we find nowadays is increasing exponentially,” says Barry. This includes fats, oils, and grease, “flushable” wipes, baby wipes, maxi pads, tampons, tampon applicators, needles, condoms, pills, plastics, diapers, kitty litter, “flushable” dog poop bags, hair, toys, cotton swabs, dental floss, paper towels, food waste – the list goes on…
These are all found in pipes and wastewater treatment facilities.
Typically, a wastewater treatment plant has 12-16 hours (at best) to treat water and turn it into what’s considered clean. That's a pretty rapid process. And it works well – when we're talking about pee, poop, and toilet paper.
So let's take a closer look at two common non-flushables causing major damage: wipes (baby wipes, “flushable” wipes, cleaning wipes, etc...) and fats, oils, and grease (also known as “fatbergs”).
In the video below, Barry conducts an experiment. As one of the main speakers for the Toilets are not Garbage Cans campaign, Barry often tests a variety of wipes and compares them to toilet paper. The experiment demonstrates their ability to break down.
Barry took 5 different wipes (different manufacturers) and toilet paper and placed each into a separate water cycle. The water cycle simulated what happened in the wastewater system. After over an hour of being in the simulator, everything except for toilet paper is still in its solid form.
Wipes are made out of different materials including plastic resins like polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene.
Because wipes don’t break down, or break down as quickly, a variety of wipes are found in pipes. The aftermath can be messy and costly. Waterkeeper’s VP, Krystyn Tully shared her own experience after moving into an older house.
On a larger scale, wipes also cause a lot of problems for sewage treatment plants and pumping stations, clogging pumps and damaging expensive equipment. It’s estimated that wipes cause $250 million a year in damage across Canada.
Recently, Krystyn came across a combined sewer overflow that washed directly into Black Creek in Toronto’s west-end. After a heavy rain this summer, she saw this:
Now tie in the issue of microplastics – more specifically, microfibres. We know that plastic pollution now accounts for 80% of all the waste in the Great Lakes. We also know that wipes alone are causing a lot of damage to wastewater treatment facilities. Even though studies are still in their early stages, the connection between the two is worrying. How much are flushable wipes contributing to the bigger microplastic problem?
With that in mind, let’s look at what Barry considers the biggest problem for sewage facilities: Fats, oils, and grease.
Fats, oils, and grease (FOG)
Ever heard of fatbergs? Not too long ago, a 10-tonne fatberg in the UK made headlines.
When cooking oils, liquid fats, and grease are poured down pipes, they harden as they cool. Over time, the oily substances build and layer, gradually closing off pipes and placing a lot of weight and pressure from the inside. Add to the picture other non-flushables washing down. Clogs can form and pipes can eventually burst, causing raw sewage to back up into basements, or discharge directly into creeks, rivers, lakes.
Even though the 10-tonne fatberg made headlines on the other side of the world, this issue is very common at home. When Waterkeeper posted photos of sewage debris in Toronto’s harbour, Barry’s 22 year experience led him to suspect the floating substance was hardened grease.
For a closer look, Barry showed us a fatberg that he pulled out of an 8-inch pipe.
Unclogging and moving forward
To help Canada’s aging pipes and ailing sewage treatment plants, we all need to be mindful of what we put down the drains. As Barry often says, “Toilets and sinks are not garbage cans.”
“There’s a lot of work to be done. The biggest thing is awareness.” In most cases, “people don’t understand how the wastewater system works. It’s a very unseen process.”
The out of sight, out of mind way of thinking needs to change.
We need to understand the connections. Water flows with gravity, as does the sewage system. Even if your home is far from a waterbody, you’re still physically connected through the pipes. Everything you wash down the drain and flush down the toilet can potentially make it to the lake, as we’ve seen this summer in Toronto’s harbour.
To help tackle the fatberg problem here in Ontario, the City of London started the Your Turn program. Community members can collect their used fats, oils, and grease in a biodegradable PLA plastic cup. When the cup is full, the person can either choose to put it in the waste bin, or take the full cups to an enviro depot.
This simple effort has saved the City of London thousands of dollars in infrastructure maintenance. “The City used to go out and clean a line with grease every month. Last year, we did a lot of awareness outreach and door-knocking to promote these grease cups. We haven’t needed to clean that line since.”
The City of London even set up depots where people can drop off their filled cups and get free new cups.
“The used fats and grease are taken to an anaerobic digester that produces methane gas which is used for electricity for the grid.” According to Barry, 1 tonne of fats, oils, grease can produce 1500 m3 of methane gas which is equivalent to half of a home’s heating cost per year.
Bottom line: If it’s not pee, poop, or toilet paper, don’t flush it down the toilet. And please, don’t wash fats, oils, and grease down the drain.
By helping protect our infrastructure, we are helping protect our waterways.
As Krystyn said when she shares her own flushable wipes debacle, “just because you can successfully flush something down your toilet does not mean it's ‘flushable.’"