As a result, plenty of people in Denver continue using items such as disinfecting wipes, paper towels and napkins as toilet paper substitutes. The situation has improved since the days in the immediate wake of Polis's order, but not quickly enough — and according to Liam Cavanaugh, senior director of coordinated operations for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, the results have been ugly.
"Even supposedly flushable wipes don't disintegrate in wastewater the way toilet paper does," notes Cavanaugh. "Instead, they start to conglomerate, causing what we call a rag ball to form. And rag balls can clog pipes."
That's not all they can do.
Cavanaugh reveals that late last month, a rag ball caused some equipment damage at the MWRD's Brighton plant. Given the enormous scale of the system, which serves most of metro Denver, including parts of Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson and Douglas counties, as well as sixty local governments representing assorted cities and sanitation districts, the damage didn't cause a catastrophic breach, and the facility was quickly able to transition back to full capacity. But smaller districts haven't been as fortunate.
Such items can cause headaches for individual homeowners, too. "By flushing these things down your line, you could clog your own part of the system — the part that's not owned by the city or by Metro Wastewater," Cavanaugh says. "If that happens, you'll have to deal with that situation yourself."
Possible repercussions for homeowners include sewage backups creating a hazardous-waste scenario that could make it unsafe to remain in the residence until after expensive mitigation can take place — and that's particularly problematic when all Coloradans are supposed to be following Polis's mandate.
In an attempt to educate the public about what's okay to flush (and what's not), Metro Wastewater is promoting a simple slogan: "Wipes clog pipes." According to Cavanaugh, "We really need to keep those things in the trash. We want to make sure we protect vital functions, so we don't have overflows. And one way to do that is to make sure only toilet paper makes it down the sewers."
If you can find toilet paper in the first place, that is.