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Toilet paper shortage leads to problems at waste water plant

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Posted at 6:07 PM, Mar 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-20 21:13:42-04

PUEBLO, Colorado — You could call it the number two problem facing Americans during the Coronavirus outbreak; a lack of toilet paper. Manufacturers say demand has doubled in recent days and they're shipping orders in a rush to restock stores. But some people locally have started flushing other products down the drain and it's causing serious trouble at the Pueblo wastewater treatment plant.

Nancy Keller, the Wastewater Treatment Director for the City of Pueblo said that paper towels, baby wipes and even disinfecting wipes are showing up at the plant.

"If you're putting wipes, really anything other than toilet paper into your toilet, those can get stuck in your service line and cause those areas to plug up," Keller said.

News 5 Investigates found back in October that even the so-called "flushable" wipes don't break down quickly in water and can clog sewer lines.

If there's a clog in a sewer line, or even in the city's sewer main, the water will flow back into the nearest basement flooding it with raw sewage.

"So, even though your house may luck out and not plug your line up, you may plug your neighbor's line up and fill their basement with raw sewage," Keller said.

The problems with the wipes existed before the virus outbreak, but Keller said it's gotten much worse.

"We were having problems about once a week of having a build up of wipes that we were having to take extra effort to get them cleaned off the screens so that they didn't cause damage to the equipment," she said. "Now they're doing it about every hour."

At Colorado Springs Utilities, spokesperson Natalie Eckhart said they haven't experienced a similar increase in sewer system problems. However, she shares Keller's concern in alerting the public to be mindful of what goes down the drain.

"Don't put your fat, oil and grease down the drain either," Eckhart said. "Anything that can cause a clog is something that you absolutely want to avoid."

The problem is, it's difficult to buy toilet paper right now. A spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific, one of the country's toilet paper largest manufacturers, said demand has doubled since the outbreak.

Their 30,000 employees ramped up production in response. But all too often, the product sells out as soon as it hits store shelves. Like Keller, they're encouraging Americans to only buy what they need.

So, how much toilet paper do we really need? Spokesman Eric Abercrombie said the company compared survey responses from IRI Worldwide, a manufacturing data and analytics company, with US Census Bureau data and determined the average American family of 2.6 people will use approximately 409 rolls of toilet paper in a year. Assuming people will stay home 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they increased the estimated daily usage by 140 percent.

Using that calculation, they believe a typical family will need about 9 of their Quilted Northern double rolls, or 5 of the mega rolls, every two weeks. For a larger family of 4-6 people, it amounts to 17 double rolls or 9 mega rolls every two weeks.

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