Imagine this: You're outside a bar on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. A friend's boyfriend has stepped outside to smoke. He finishes the cigarette, and maybe there isn't an ashtray or a bucket nearby, and so he tosses it into the street.
Or, try this scenario: You're at home with one of those "flushable" wipes. You're done with it, so, you flush it.
Since the area has combined sewers, that wipe and the cigarette butt are going to end up in the same place: at the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD).
"We see any and everything you could ever think of," says Brad Blankenship, a plant supervisor at the Mill Creek Station. That's where most of the stuff that goes down the drain in Hamilton County ends up.
"Imagine a 3-year-old who likes to flush things down the toilet," he says. "You're going to get everything from children's toys to balls, to credit cards, old cell phones... I don't know if they're getting flushed; we don’t know if they're coming through the storm drain, but we end up with all that stuff here."
Some of that stuff has been plucked out and cleaned, and is kept on a shelf in a section of the plant. "We've got a baseball. We've got a miniature rubber duckie. We've got a pair of eyeglasses," Blakenship says. "We have some toy cars; some figurines. It looks like a female wrestler figurine. Paw Patrol; a watch."
Blankenship says solid items are caught by the bar screens. Those are just what they sound like: a screen with bars which should catch most of what passes by.
There are four screens at Mill Creek. "All of the material that is screened ends up on our conveyor system and ultimately to our trash compactor where it'll be disposed of at our local landfill, which is Rumke," Blankenship says.
He says anything bigger than three-eighths of an inch will get caught and removed. But there are plenty of things that get into the system that are smaller than that.
A conveyor belt at MSD. In the fall, it's filled with buckeyes. pic.twitter.com/jjCcP9m5WT
— Bill Rinehart (@BillGRinehart) July 9, 2018
MSD assistant superintendent Keith Heffner says that includes cooking grease and fat, which some people pour down the drain. "Even though you put some soap with it, you put some hot water with it, it's gonna break it up, but it's going to re-congeal once it loses temperature and gets into the collection system," Heffner says.
Grease will mix with anything it comes into contact with, Heffner says, including plastic, leaves and baby wipes. "Although they say they're flushable -- they are flushable, they will flush down the toilet -- but they will not break down before they get to the treatment plants. If you have a 24-inch pipe or a 36-inch pipe you may only have six inches of that pipe that's open for water flow because of the build-up of material."
He says that's one reason water and sewage back-up in basements and sinks.
It happened famously in London last year. A 130-ton mess of grease, plastic, leaves and other things was dubbed the "fatberg."
The fatberg didn't make it to a plant where it could be screened and removed. Workers had to get into the pipes to clear it out. Heffner says MSD often sees smaller bergs long before they reach a treatment plant. "It will actually clog up a pump to where the pump won't run anymore," he says. "Maintenance will have to go out and take that pump off line."
That's time and money. Which stinks. Literally. As you can imagine, a lot of things produce odor at MSD, and Brad Blankenship says fat and grease are on the list. "It's way down. But it is a minimal source of odors that we have to control. As you can smell in this building, it's not pleasant."
In his 27 years at MSD, Keith Heffner has only seen more and more stuff come down the pipes despite Americans becoming more environmentally aware. "I think it's people would rather use a baby wipe than toilet paper. They feel they're getting cleaner by using a baby wipe. And maybe they are, but then they're causing problems downstream."
Metropolitan Sewer District is working on a public service campaign to discourage putting the wrong stuff down the drain. It's tentatively called "Love Your Loo."