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Stop, think, and put it in the trash, not down the drain
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Most people don't like to think about what goes down the drain, but with rising costs for repairing broken pipes, clearing clogged lines, and upgrading or replacing old water treatment equipment, a little knowledge can save everyone money.
Jason Barrett, assistant Extension professor with the Extension Center for Government and Community Development, works with mayors, certified wastewater operators, and boards of city and county government.
“To me, one of the challenges is that the average customer isn’t aware of what the majority of wastewater systems are designed to handle and treat,” Barrett said. “As a result, people are putting things down the drain that harm their own plumbing, the water collection system, the pumping system and the treatment system. Every time something breaks or is damaged, that costs money to fix, and those costs get passed on to customers, so it comes full circle.”
Typically, wastewater leaves a house or apartment in one of two ways: through the bathroom or kitchen. Both are critical, Barrett said.
First, think about the kitchen sink.
“Anything that remains in a skillet -- any kind of fat or oil -- should be poured into a garbage container, not down the drain,” he said. “Especially when the temperatures drop, that grease will sit in a drain pipe and harden, and cause the pipe to clog or burst. And no one wants to deal with that when it’s cold outside.”
Barrett said excess food should be composted or put in the garbage can.
“Anything you may jam down the sink can get trapped in the pump that is trying to move wastewater to the treatment facility, even if it’s small pieces,” he said.
That problem still exists even for kitchen sinks with garbage disposals, Barrett added.
“A lot of people are misinformed about the ‘insinkerator’ in the kitchen,” he said. “It’s supposed to assist things moving through the system left from washing dishes, not chop up your garbage. Some disposals are better than others, but they’re not designed to dispose of trash.”
When it comes to bathrooms, Barrett said it is a lot easier to say what can or should go down a toilet versus what should not.
“Toilet paper, period,” he said. “Wastewater treatment facilities are designed to handle water and human waste. Nothing else should go down the toilet, even if the label says it’s environmentally friendly or biodegradable. No medications, cotton swabs, feminine hygiene products, paper towels or baby wipes.”
Barrett said he thinks the majority of city and county governments try their best to keep the cost of collection, treatment and discharge of wastewater as low as possible, but when these items are introduced into the system, they cause problems.
“The ultimate goal in operating a wastewater system is for it to function properly and in the most cost-efficient manner, so it’s in the best interest of the customer to know what to put in the drain and what to put in the trash,” he said.
Charles Box spent 25 years in the construction business and 15 years as the superintendent of Starkville Water and Sewer. He retired and works part-time as a wastewater operator looking after independently owned systems.
During his career, he has seen a lot of changes in what people think will go down the drain.
“Some manufacturers started putting nylon in paper towels to make them more durable, and they will eat a pump up,” Box said. “Believe it or not, if you fold a diaper right, it will flush, but it will mess up a system.”
Box said consumers can help keep wastewater costs low by maintaining the lines from their homes to where they connect with the wastewater system.
“A lot of trouble starts in the line from a dwelling to where the system hooks on,” he said. “People run over the cleanout plug with the lawn mower and don’t replace the cap, tree roots will crack a pipe, or people will place strategic landscape plants over the sewer line. When it gets dry, those roots will reach for water and infiltrate the pipe.
“If customers would keep their system in order, it would help,” Box said.