Featured image: A clog-causing fatberg removed from a Tampa piping station. (Courtesy of the City of Tampa)

The takeaway message:

Toilet paper shortages during the coronavirus pandemic have forced Floridians to get creative with substitute materials, causing clogs that damage an already ailing wastewater system.

What’s going on?

Adding to the struggles of an aging wastewater infrastructure, toilet paper shortages meant that more people were flushing wipes. But wastewater officials beg users not to do this, even if the wipes are listed as flushable.

When people flush things other than toilet paper and human waste, they can combine with grease that’s been poured down the drain. This combination can leave wastewater utility workers crying foul. When binded together, these materials can form what are known as “fatbergs,” which block pipes and can damage sewers and pumps, leading to sewage backups and costly repairs. In April, Tampa had to remove a 108-cubic-yard fatberg, spending millions of dollars adjusting its utilities to deal with the problem.

Why it matters.

Damaged and clogged sewers and pumps can lead to untreated wastewater leaking into our waterways, contributing to the nutrient pollution. Excess nutrients can lead to algae blooms and, in some cases, dead zones.

Because of Florida’s aging pipes, the Florida Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state wastewater and stormwater infrastructure ratings of mediocre and poor, respectively, in 2016. The faulty system even prompted a University of Florida professor to call it “a ticking time bomb” while discussing proposed legislation to improve the situation in the recent 2020 state legislative session. Of the wastewater infrastructure bills our team analyzed, only one passed: the Clean Waterways Act, which focuses on maintaining and improving septic systems in the state.

What can I do?

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