With grocery stores struggling to replenish their empty shelves to keep up with the high demand of toilet paper, many shoppers are resorting to alternative products such as tissues or wipes. As a result, local plumbing systems have experienced a surge in backed-up sewage lines.

Despite some toilet paper substitutes being marketed as “flushable,” some of these products and other alternatives can clog local sewage systems — posing problems for cities, water districts and homeowners alike.

According to Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, “unlike toilet paper, products such as baby wipes, tissues, and paper towels do not break down. When flushed into the public sewer system, they often clump together, causing very large obstructions in sewer lines. They get tangled in pump stations, requiring repair of equipment and causing backups and discharges of raw sewage into basements of homes and businesses, and into waters of the state.”

Scott Firmin, the director of wastewater for the Portland Water District, said the indiscriminate flushing has a cost, especially amid efforts to curb the pandemic.

“Last week, we had a plug at one of our smaller stations in a Gorham neighborhood, and that alone costs about $2,000 in staff time, vehicle time and the entire process of getting resources out there, Firmin said. “Under normal circumstances, that’s a burden and a cost. But, under the circumstances we’re facing now, our focus is essential services and keeping our workforce as safe as possible.”

The redirection of public workers for essential services is likely to result in considerable wait times for backed-up plumbing systems.

“Of all the things we have time to be doing right now, unplugging pumps needlessly due to products other than toilet paper being flushed isn’t what we want our focus to be,” Firmin explained, “this is one thing that the public can really help us out on.”

Even napkins and facial tissues do not break down as quickly and should not be flushed.

According to Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, the best practice is to only flush human waste and toilet paper. Any other products should be disposed of in household trash.

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