Clogged sewers, wastewater spills in waterways, broken equipment: the wipes cause headaches for sewer system managers in Quebec, who deplore the “disposable in the toilet” label on certain products whose use has increased with the pandemic.
A sanitary sewer clogged with disposable wipes caused heavy contamination with fecal coliforms in the Rivière du Nord in August, in Saint-Jérôme, in the Laurentians.
“It was so clogged that it came out of the lid,” told Press the civil engineer Alain Saladzius, president of the Rivers Foundation, whom the City had mandated to find the cause of the problem.
The wastewater flowed into a small stream, which flowed into the river a few hundred meters further, near where the City would like to build a beach.
“It was appalling,” recalls François Tremblay, head of the Saint-Jérôme water production and purification division, who dispatched a team to the site the same day.
“It had blocked the entire plumbing,” he said.
It was the pollution of the river, even in dry weather, that alerted the authorities – it can happen, during heavy rains, that the sewers are overloaded and that the overflow is discharged into the waterways -, which have observed a “major” improvement in the quality of the water after having unblocked the sewer.
The Saint-Jérôme event is far from isolated: many sewer network managers in Quebec say they are struggling with problems related to wipes, told Press the Environmental Network, a group of specialists in environmental issues, which deplores the fact that certain manufacturers indicate that their products can be flushed down the toilet.
The organization recently surveyed the cities that are part of its Program of Excellence for water resource recovery stations, including Laval, Longueuil and Quebec, and 92% of them said they were facing such problems. , which have increased with the pandemic.
“There were even sewer backups in some places,” remembers Christian Sauvageau, director of the environmental health service at L’Assomption.
“There is a neighborhood where we had to intervene two or three times in a few months,” he adds.
But the wipes mostly create problems in pumping stations, which serve as relays to deliver wastewater from an area to the central treatment plant, he explains.
It blocks the pumps, the level rises, rises, and there you have to go and clean it manually.
Christian Sauvageau, Director of the Environmental Hygiene Department at the City of L’Assomption
Pump failure represents “at least half” of the annual maintenance budget of $ 150,000 for the sewer system, believes Christian Sauvageau, who is sorry that it is the taxpayers who have to pay off the bill.
In Saint-Jérôme, the pumps at a station have been replaced by more powerful and more expensive devices that no longer jam.
“But we shoveled the problem forward,” says François Tremblay. Everything goes through the pump, but it’s the six inch tubing at the end that’s clogged. ”
The problems caused by the wipes are a “plague” which results “only from a bad information given to the citizens”, deplores Alain Saladzius, indicating that these products should rather go to the trash.
Approved by plumbers?
“Cottonelle disposable washcloths are designed to be flushed down the toilet and are approved by plumbers,” says the brand owned by US multinational Kimberly-Clark on its website.
“You can therefore be sure that they are safe for sewers and septic tanks and that they disintegrate as soon as you flush,” adds the multinational. Nothing is further from the truth, are indignant the stakeholders consulted by Press.
“It’s zero biodegradable,” says François Tremblay.
“It’s not like toilet paper, [c’est] rigid, ”adds Christian Sauvageau.
The Corporation of Master Pipe Mechanics of Quebec (CMMTQ), which grants licenses to plumbing companies, dissociates itself from the claims of Cottonelle and other manufacturers.
“We are not the ones making approvals on this,” he told Press its director of technical service, Charles Côté.
Kimberly-Clark’s customer service even went further in an email to the Gaspésie Sud Water Council, a watershed organization that had expressed concern over Cottonelle wipes in sewers, saying that “Wipes clean toilets, drains, sewers, pumps.”
Charles Côté laughs when he hears this statement and exclaims ironically: “Lord! We should all throw one a day! “
“I would be curious to see the report and the test protocol, which I think are special,” he continues.
Kimberly-Clark declined an interview request from Press through a communications firm which declared that “no one” within the multinational was available.
In a written statement, the author of which is unknown, the company maintains that it is the wipes of other brands that are blocking the sewers, while their own disintegrate there.
“Disposable in the toilet” wipes have a heavy ecological impact, underlines the Environment Network. “Sending a wipe in the toilet, when leaving, it takes 15 L of water to dispose of it”, explains the project manager Alain Lalumière. “If you’re lucky, it goes to the treatment plant without blocking, but then you have to get it out of the water,” he adds. Like all the solid materials that make up wastewater, the wipes will be buried, incinerated or “upgraded” to make energy, explains Mr. Lalumière, emphasizing all the energy required to treat a material that should not have been collected. find it there at the start.