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(Austin Water)

Since the pandemic began, Austin Water has noticed an increase in the amount of disinfectant wipes in the sewer system. Although often marketed as flushable, the wipes can cause clogs at treatments plans, like this one in South Austin.

Add "fatberg" to the list of 2020 plagues to avoid.


The unsavory term, first coined in the U.S. in 2008, refers to a large mass of fat and solid waste that has collected in a sewer system.

When people pour turkey grease down their disposal, put a dirty dish in the dishwasher or flush a baby wipe, the substances gather underground in sewer lines, explained Dr. Joel Ducoste, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University.

Calcium present in background wastewater reacts with the fats and wipes to form a solid mass that can cause sewer backup or snapped pipes.

"It's basically the same structure as when soap is formed," he said.

Since the pandemic began in March—and disinfectant wipes flew off area shelves—the Austin Water utility has seen an increase of such materials in their system, said Environmental Conservation Division Manager Jay Porter.

Recently, a buildup of wipes clogged the Dessau treatment plant in North Austin. Repairs cost $750,000.

"It comes to a significant cost to repair these things, which ultimately can affect the public financially," he said, adding that many wipes are marketed as flushable even though they do not disintegrate in water.

In addition to threatening the utility's sewer pipes and treatment plants, such waste can also cause trouble for homeowners, depending on where the clog occurs.

"If the damage was on the private side of the sewer system, you're looking at anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000 in repairs that the resident would be responsible for," Porter said.

Unlike restaurants, which are required to maintain grease traps and observe other city regulations, residential properties don't have such safeguards.

With Thanksgiving approaching, Austin Water launched its annual messaging campaign this week, which asked residents not to pour cooking grease and other fats down their drains.

Instead, Austinites can store it in a coffee canister or other container and put it in the trash. Alternatively, they can take it to the Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center, which will send it off to make biodiesel and prevent it from ending up in a landfill.

Porter is optimistic that Austinites will heed the utility's warnings.

"My experience with the Austin community is the majority of people take their responsibility to the environment pretty seriously," he said.

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