No toilet paper? Don’t flush anything else

A Costco employee hands out packages of toilet paper.
A Costco employee hands out packages of toilet paper to customers at a Costco store on March 14 in Novato, Calif.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

One of the responses to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a run on toilet paper at stores in Minnesota and across the country, leaving bare shelves at many retailers.

That’s leading wastewater treatment operators to worry that people will use — and flush — other products instead that could cause havoc on sewer systems if they run out of toilet paper.

“That means people are more likely to use other products around their home,” said Sara Heger, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. “They're very likely paper products, but paper products that aren't designed to break down.”

So now, some Minnesota cities are putting out public announcements asking people not to flush paper towels, napkins, tissues or rags in lieu of toilet paper. They’re also asking people to avoid flushing disposable wipes used for cleaning or personal hygiene, which have been causing problems in sewer pipes for years.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Even though those wipes are often labeled “flushable,” that’s misleading, Heger said. They accumulate in the sewer system, where they can combine with fats, oil and grease to create massive “fatbergs” that have caused extensive damage in some cities, including London and New York.

In Rochester, Minn., workers already have to clean the screens at the city’s water reclamation plant twice a week. That’s due to the accumulation of wipes and other items such as feminine products, condoms and dental floss, said Chelsea Wiegand, an environmental specialist with the city.

A person uses a bucket to collect samples.
Chelsea Wiegand, environmental specialist at the city of Rochester's water reclamation plant, collects a sample for a study of wipes and other material that frequently clog wastewater treatment equipment.
Courtesy of city of Rochester

“The rule of thumb is just never dispose of anything in the toilet besides toilet paper and human waste,” Wiegand said. “And that includes wipes of any kind."

If people do use products other than toilet paper, they should be disposed of in the garbage, Heger said. She also said antibacterial cleaning wipes shouldn't be flushed, because they kill the good bacteria that helps a sewer system break down waste.

A man wearing coveralls uses a pitchfork to pull out a clump of material.
Jacob Price, a sewer operator for the city of Rochester, pulls out a clump of wipes and other material from equipment at the city's water reclamation plant.
Courtesy of city of Rochester

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

Map: Confirmed cases across the state