One day last year, Wellington wastewater treatment plant superintendent Bryan Gayoso and his team watched as a vape pen after vape pen entered the treatment plant’s system.
“We had never seen so many,” he said.
It was an especially unusual sight in a place where there are a lot of unusual sightings — of things that absolutely positively should not be flushed down the toilet.
“It’s important for people to realize that everything that comes from your house, it all comes here,” Gayoso said. “And it can cause us a lot of problems.”
Yes, there is an actual “end of the line” for the weird things you flush down the toilet. And the people who work there would very much like you to be more careful.
How does it work?
When you flush your toilet, whatever you just flushed enters a massive treatment system.
To get to Wellington’s wastewater treatment plant on Pierson Road, about 105 lift stations throughout Wellington propel waste to one green-tubed pump station, through which everything enters the plant. That plant has a capacity of 6 million to 6.5 million gallons a year, Gayoso said. Wellington uses about half of that capacity.
The process of sending waste through the lift stations toward the plant allows items that are about 3 inches long or shorter to keep moving, unless those items first get chewed up by the blades of the impellers inside each lift station, said Anjuli Panse, utility director.
When waste arrives at the plant, it first goes to a building called the headworks. There, a pair of bar screens with hooked teeth operate as needed to claw inorganic matter from the actual waste.
Basically, anything that shouldn’t be there, has to go.
These bar screens do some heavy lifting. So heavy, at times, that the teeth can break, Gayoso said.
The material then goes into a press that packs the debris tight and squeezes out any water. A separate process filters out “grit,” or things like small pieces of plastic and kernels of corn.
All of this ends up in a large garbage container, Gayoso said. It amounts to about three to four tons of material a week, he said.
Any material that makes it past the headworks enters Wellington’s biological wastewater treatment process, Panse said.
“It doesn’t just magically disappear,” Panse said of any item that enters the wastewater system. “It goes somewhere. It goes in the pipe. It goes in the pump stations. Somebody has to deal with it at the end of the line.”
What have they seen?
Over the years, Gayoso and his team have seen a little bit of everything scooped up by the teeth on the bar screen.
- Hot Wheel cars.
- Goldfish. (The actual fish, not the crackers.)
- Money — $5, $10, $20 bills.
- Rubber duckies.
- Dead rats.
- Clumps of horse hair, which mat together and plug filters inside lift stations.
- Grease, which lines sewer pipes like clogged arteries.
- And those “flushable” wipes.
I put “flushable” in quotes because if you saw what I saw in terms of the sheer number of wipes moving through the wastewater system when I visited the plant last week, you would never flush a wipe again.
“They say ‘flushable,’ but they’re not really flushable,” Gayoso said. “They come in here intact.”
I saw this for myself. The bar screen’s teeth carried clump after clump after clump of wipes up and into the roto press, which compacts matter down and squeezes out any water.
You might remember hearing about this issue early in the pandemic. With a shortage of toilet paper, some people turned to using flushable wipes or even baby wipes. Sewer systems throughout the U.S. suffered, because of the massive clumps of wipes trying to pass through pipes that aren’t designed for that purpose.
Why are “flushable” wipes able to be called flushable? I found a couple of reasons.
First, some of these wipes are made from biodegradable material. They will break down eventually, but Gayoso said they don’t spend enough time in Wellington’s wastewater system to do so.
Second, some companies take “flushable” to mean that the wipes can be flushed. They will pass through your wastewater pipes and into the larger system.
“All of these things can cause multiple problems throughout the process,” Gayoso said.
What should you do if something goes down the toilet?
If you accidentally send something down the drain — say, an important piece of jewelry — Panse said the best thing to do is call a plumber. They can come to your house and use a camera to check your line and see if the item might be stuck, or still close to home.
The chances of finding something at the wastewater plant are very slim, Gayoso said.
“We don’t have a great chance of finding it here,” he said.
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