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Uh-oh: All those disposable masks and wipes are clogging the sewers

Yes, you should wear a mask in public. No, you should not throw it in the gutter.

Uh-oh: All those disposable masks and wipes are clogging the sewers
[Photo: Salvatore Laporta/Kontrolab/LightRocket/Getty Images]

It was nearly impossible to even get a hold of disposable face masks and wipes a few months ago. Now, they’re everywhere—and they’re wreaking havoc on sewage and stormwater systems in the United States.

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Many people are getting rid of their face masks, wipes, and gloves by flushing them down the toilet, and it’s causing a surge in clogged pipes and sewage overflows, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement on March 30 encouraging Americans to only flush toilet paper and to throw disinfecting wipes and other items in the trash, writing, “preventable toilet and sewer backups can pose a threat to human health and present an extra challenge to our water utilities and their workforce.”

[Photo: kulbabka/iStock]
Apparently, Americans didn’t listen. Part of the backup has to do with the toilet paper shortage itself. Without access to flushable material on store shelves, people under stay-at-home orders turned to alternatives, like flushable wipes. “When everyone rushed out to get toilet paper and there was none . . . people were using whatever they could,” said Pamela Mooring, spokeswoman for DC Water, the water system that services Washington, D.C. And they weren’t always disposing of them properly.

By late April, most of Philadelphia’s 19 sewer and storm water pumping stations experienced clogs from masks, wipes, and gloves tossed into the toilet, according to Mayor Jim Keeney. One wastewater pump in Maryland saw an increase of 37,000 wipes between January and March 2020. It’s not a singular issue: 15 cities contacted by the Associated Press said that drain clogs have become an expensive and time-consuming side effect of the pandemic.

How you dispose of the products at home is only part of the problem. Face masks, gloves, and wipes can end up in our waterways and lakes if you throw them in the street (never mind the fact that littering is poor for the health of the planet anyway), because curbside storm drains connect directly to a nearby body of water.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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