COLORADO SPRINGS — Have you ever flushed a wet wipe down the toilet? The wipes are a billion dollar industry, but wastewater experts say flushing them is causing sewage back-ups and a multi-million dollar mess. Wastewater experts say unless it is toilet paper you shouldn't flush it down, begging people to stop flushing wet wipes, even if manufacturers say it’s safe.
Sewer system experts aren't convinced "flushable wipes" break down fast enough to prevent problems. In Colorado Springs new technology aims to hold flushers accountable for any problems.
"What would you see right here it's a common typical everyday scenario as you can see a lot of baby wipes," said Colorado Springs Utilities Wastewater Operator Chris Fernandez. "Flushable wipes, toys, plastics anything that somebody would throw in a toilet it's going to come here."
Fernandez is a wastewater operator at a Colorado Springs facility that treats more than 30 million gallons of wastewater each day.
"This is something that needs to be addressed. over the years it has gotten worse," said Fernandez.
He showed us how thousands of pounds of wet wipes are pulled from the sewage drains each week and piled up in roll-away dumpsters.
"That's 99% is baby wipes or any kind of wipes," said Fernandez.
This year alone crews have had to haul away 100 of these dumpsters full of wipes.
"As that non-organic material flows down through our sewer systems that can cause blockages it can hit homes and you can possibly even back up basements," said Fernandez.
For years wastewater companies have tried to educate the public about the problem. Now, new technology is helping to hold those who flush wipes accountable.
"You know if there's a stoppage we'll get it investigated and then you know there could be a lot of ramifications for whoever is flushing these wipes down the drain if we can show a tap where it's coming from a business or residence then you know could be a lot of legal right ramifications for them," said Colorado Springs Utilities Operations Supervisor Dave Dunlap.
Using these robotic cameras, Colorado Springs Utilities crews get a glimpse into the sewer lines, pinpointing who is causing problems for the city's wastewater system.
"if you can actually visually see something as opposed to just running a cleaning tool through it and bring it back i mean you might find something you might not. this actually shows it to you so i say it's a game-changer for us," said Dunlap.
More than 100 miles south in Trinidad, many residents use septic tanks and according to J.J. Rivera, a septic tank pumper. The flushing of wipes is causing problems for them as well.
"They go buy a home in the hills because it's peaceful, tranquil. oh don't worry we'll just keep our habits going. pretty soon... honey, lines are backed up. honey, there's stuff in the basement. oh, i didn't know. so here we go out and find the problem 90% of its wipes. they're like, we had no idea," said Rivera who runs Little Stinker Septic Service.
Rivera's family has been in the septic service business for decades and says the decision to flush wet wipes has been life changing for some of his customers costing them tens of thousands of dollars to fix the problems.
"What made them listen was they got hit in the pocketbook," said Rivera. "That was money they were planning on vacation we were going to go do this we are going to buy new car oh my god it just vanished because we were doing something we were not supposed to but we are accustomed to."
While the nationwide debate continues over just how flushable the flushable wipes really are, Rivera hopes someone will develop wipes that can set a new standard helping to limit the damage caused by wipes in the pipes.
According to the market research group Euromonitor International sales of personal wipes reached $2.2 billion in North America in 2015 and the market continues to grow. The biggest manufacturers of flushable wipes say their products don't pose a risk to sewage systems. Wastewater experts disagree and advise people to play it safe and throw wipes in the trash.