Flushed But Not Forgotten

Not only are wipes ‘public enemy No. 1’ at the wastewater plant, but they and other non-flushable items also hinder the return of clean water to the environment.

By Stacey Marquis

To the uninitiated, “flushable” products such as sanitary wipes and cat litter seem like the epitome of convenience and cleanliness. Cottonelle, for example, touts its Fresh Care flushable cleansing cloths made with “SafeFlush Technology,” assuring the customer the product will not only improve hygiene, but is safe for sewers and septic tanks, too.

Brett Goodman, facilities director at Gainesville Regional Utilities’ Kanapaha reclamation plant, knows first-hand that this is not true. He considers flushable wipes among the more damaging materials in the wastewater that flows to the plant from homes and businesses in northwest Gainesville.

Flushable wipes, he says, are “public enemy No. 1 for water reclamation.”

Goodman says people flush other products they should not, such as cat litter, plastics, grease, diapers, and more. But the wipes force all of the products to stick together, which can block pumps at the facility.

Delmetrius Barton, an operator at the plant, stresses that very little can actually be flushed down a toilet or go down a drain.

“Pretty much the only thing you should flush – in a perfect world – down a commode is human waste, water and toilet paper,” Barton says.

A three-foot-wide wad of flushable wipes and other materials builds at the plant’s headworks, where the wastewater starts its journey through the reclamation process. Goodman refers to this mass as “rag mountain.”

The wipes and other materials interfere with the facility’s efficiency, he says.

“Our job is to take the water that has been borrowed by our community and restore that and give it back to the environment safely,” Goodman says. “One of the biggest obstacles we have in doing that is the things that people flush down the toilet that they should not. Those prevent us from, in a lot of ways, protecting the environment and doing our job.”

As a result, GRU – and its ratepayers – have to make significant investments to overcome the obstacles. The more faux-flushables go down the toilet and the sink, the more GRU must invest in technology to deal with the mess. A several-million-dollar upgrade to the Kanapaha facility is now underway to transition from a bar rack system, which extracts solid materials from wastewater with rakes, to a screen system that will let much less material through.

GRU is also building a new facility that will, as part of a contract with Green Technologies, turn solids extracted from the wastewater into fertilizer.

“The facilities we’ve traditionally used in wastewater treatment … are not designed to handle those types of materials,” Goodman says, “and that’s why we’ve had to invest a lot of new technology.”

  • After flowing upward to a GRU lift station, solid materials get separated from the water through a bar rake system and later disposed of into a dumpster. The current bar rake system fills one to two dumpsters of trash a day. Photo by Andrea Cornejo.

  • Unflushable products such as feminine hygiene products, cleaning cloths, dental floss, and cat litter are processed through a bar rake system to separate the solid waste from the water. The current bar rake system fills one to two dumpsters of trash a day. Photo by Andrea Cornejo.

  • Cleaning cloths often clump up in a wad of solid waste and lead to clogged pumps. Photo by Andrea Cornejo.

  • Plant Operator Demetrius Barton measures the quality of water at the GRU Kanapaha Facility on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. “Pretty much the only thing you should flush – in a perfect world – down a commode is human waste, water and toilet paper,” Johnson says. Photo by Andrea Cornejo.

  • Brett Goodman, facilities director at Gainesville Regional Utilities’ Kanapaha reclamation plant, explains the process of water reclamation at the GRU Kanapaha Reclamation Facility on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Photo by Andrea Cornejo.

The journey of a flushable wipe

Once a sanitary wipe is flushed down a toilet, it flows to one of GRU’s lift stations. The lift station elevates the water and forces it to flow upward, where it will reach either GRU’s Main Street Water Reclamation Facility or the Kanapaha facility near Tower Road.

At this point, the wipe is swimming among a brown sea of other wipes, dental floss, tampon applicators, human waste, cat litter, cooking grease and much more. It floats there until it is processed through a bar screen, which uses rakes to separate the water from the solid material.

“As water comes through there, the rakes will pick up these rags and will come up and grab them and put them in the dumpster,” Goodman says. “It’s a very aggressive environment.”

With the current bar rake system, the Kanapaha facility fills one to two dumpsters of material a day. The new screen system will produce about double that amount, according to the plant operators.

If the wipe isn’t captured by the rakes, it will flow to aeration basins, where microorganisms are introduced to eat the material and turn it into solids that can settle to the bottom of a basin.

After spinning around in the aeration basins and lodging to other wads of material, the flushable wipe will pass through a series of pumps to move to the next station. The wipe may cause the pump to seize, requiring a pump mechanic to remove the material. Even halfway through the water-reclamation process, the wipes and other materials can still do damage.

“Everywhere you look, there is a pump,” Goodman says. “And everywhere you look, those rags catch.”

If the wipe makes it to the secondary clarifier, where the solids settle to the bottom, it will be part of a much smaller group of material, stuffed into a far corner, where it will stay until it gets separated out.

The bottom layer of the secondary clarifier is referred to as the “blanket.” The level of the blanket is checked six times a day by an operator to make sure it doesn’t overflow into the next station. The water and its fine solids will finally be free from the foreign material, with only three more steps to go until it’s clean enough to be released back out into the world. Once the solids have been filtered through sand and the water treated with sodium hypochlorite, it’s now crystal clear, free of debris or any harmful material. While people do not drink the reclaimed water, Goodman says it is treated to the same standard as drinking water.

It will be recycled to irrigate greenspace, to replenish the Floridan Aquifer, or to create aesthetic water features in the community.

What can you do to help water’s return to the environment?

Barton observes that the water-reclamation plant is similar to the human body in how it processes material. “You might flush something and not think twice about it because the water carries it through the system, and you think everything is great,” Barton says. “It’s kind of analogous to your arteries in your body. If you’re putting stuff … greases and stuff that are clogging your arteries, it can lead to a heart attack. In this scenario, if you’re flushing stuff that shouldn’t be in the system, it clogs and it’s not a good thing.”

To combat the high costs of removing material from wastewater, the communications team at GRU works to educate the Gainesville community about what should go down the drain. Tiffany Small, GRU’s communication specialist, says people should think of the three P’s when they flush: toilet paper, poo and pee.

Her team also works on campaigns involving cooking grease, oils and fats – especially during the holidays.

“We try to promote people going to Alachua County (waste collection, here’s a map and other details) because they have a very good collection program where they will take most of the stuff,” she says. “They take a collection of weird stuff too, pharmaceuticals and pills. That’s an issue too. A lot of people dump their pills down the toilet.”

Goodman says Gainesville residents are already conscious of their environmental impact; they just may not know that water consciousness extends to what swirls down the toilet.

“The Gainesville community, specifically, are very in touch with environmental protection and environmental stewardship,” he says. “One of the things they can do every single day is to make sure that they’re diligent about keeping their flushable wipes out of toilets.”

By putting anything other than the three P’s into the trash can and not the toilet or drain, residents “can help us do our job better,” she says.

“We take the water the community uses and give it back to the environment, and they can help us with that.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misattributed Delmetrius Barton’s last name.

“Pretty much the only thing you should flush – in a perfect world – down a commode is human waste, water and toilet paper.”Delmetrius Barton, an operator at Gainesville's Kanapaha wastewater treatment plant

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