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Fatbergs and Polar Bears - Don't Flush That!

Sewer line with roots

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

That’s a comforting thought whenever we’re cleaning up in the kitchen or using the bathroom. A quick whirl of the garbage disposal, a fast flush of the toilet, and whatever we were dealing with is gone, never to be seen again. It’s a nice theory. Too bad it’s ONLY a theory.

In reality, whatever we put down the drain has to go SOMEWHERE while it (we hope!) breaks down and decomposes. It either lands in the municipal sewer and waste treatment plant or, if you live in the country, in your septic system. Whatever you put down the drain has to:

  • go through the sewer without clogging it
  • decompose safely and quickly

Experts tell us that we should only put two things down a toilet - human waste (of course) and toilet paper. Nothing else, and they DO mean nothing else. No paper towels, no so-called ‘flushable’ wipes, no diapers, no grease, cooking oils or food materials, no expired medicines, no chemicals, paints, automotive oils… nothing but human waste and toilet paper.

The story is similar in the kitchen. Never never put oils and fat down your drain. Running hot water as you pour fat and oil down the sink does nothing to help. That hot water hits the cold drain pipes, and the fats and oils it is carrying quickly cool down and congeal into a drain-clogging mess. Even if you do have a garbage disposal, be very careful what organic matter you put down your drain. Disposals are awfully convenient, and we all love them. And they can certainly make organic material disappear from our view! But even if we can’t see it, that ground-up food waste is still left in the sewer or septic system, and the more organic material there is present in the system, the harder it is for the natural bacteria to work properly and to eliminate it effectively.

Ideally, you’ll use sink strainers to catch as much organic material as you can BEFORE it goes down the drain. Whenever the strainer is full, empty it into the garbage or compost it. Use your garbage disposal to eliminate whatever minor amount of food waste escaped the strainers. Your drains will thank you for your efforts!

And if you need any more motivation to be careful what you put down your drains, the city of London, England has a story to tell you:

London sewer clog is 250 yards long and weighs 130 tons - www.mercurynews.com

London isn’t the only city with the issue of course – New York is spending millions on the problem every year – but London certainly has the best name for the clogs, which they call a ‘fatberg’. Some waste-water workers in this country are calling them ‘polar bears’. Whatever you call them, they’re the same basic problem – a mass of fat, oil, grease, and ‘flushable’ wipes that ended up in the sewer and got caught up in a big, expensive mess.

In 2015, the city of Wyoming, Minnesota went so far as to sue six manufacturers of ‘flushable’ wipes for damages to their sewer system.

Wyoming, Minnesota sues manufactures of ‘flushable’ wipes - www.startribune.com

Update on ‘flushable’ lawsuit - kstp.com

Realistically, none of us will ever have to cope with a drain problem on the same scale as London or New York, or even Wyoming, Minnesota. But we can still cause ourselves a major headache if we put the wrong things down our drains. Petersen Plumbing stands ready to help whenever you do have a sewer problem, of course. But we certainly hope that such problems are few and far-between, and we hope that our advice will be useful for you in the meantime.

And remember to give us a call at 541-343-9339 whenever you need us!

Don’t Flush This - www.portlandoregon.gov (Complete with awesome video.)

‘Flushable’ wipes can cost thousands - www.startribune.com