'Don’t flush that!' Pandemic leads to concern over masks and more in local toilets
VANCOUVER -- The smell is oddly sweet.
Not in a warm, welcoming way, like the scents you might remember from your grandmother’s house, but in a foul, funky way, like that shrub you walked past that seemed kind of floral, but which you’d rather forget.
It comes in wafts and drafts, but there is no escaping it.
Below the metal grates under my feet, raw sewage roils three or four metres down.
And in front, a giant moving filter called a "bar screen."
It looks sort of like what might happen if a giant pool skimmer met a garden rake, with a whole lot of steel mixed in.
I’m in the bar screen room at the Annacis Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.
When one million people across Metro Vancouver flush their toilets, this is where the flow eventually ends.
It’s not so much the flushing that’s the problem, my guide and senior operations supervisor, David Hoffman, says, but what British Columbians are flushing.
Hoffman has worked at treatment plants like this one for decades, and he’s seen it all.
“Toys, rags, sometimes teeth,” Hoffman says when I ask him to list off some of the strangest items that turn up.
And recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the folks here have noticed what appears to be an uptick, though it’s hard to measure, in things like latex gloves and even masks.
Hoffman and I watch as the bar screen scrapes the debris up out of the water.
Neither of us wants to get any closer.
“We have to capture it here before it goes downstream,” Hoffman explains. “You cause damage to those pumps, it’s over a year to get another pump.”
'Flushable' wipes still a big culprit
The household items British Columbians choose to throw away in their toilets are a longstanding concern for the Metro Vancouver team.
And the fact wipes and other cleaning products have been flying off store shelves since the coronavirus took hold in March has only heightened it.
“Sometimes we’re feeling flushed,” quips Richard Stewart, the chair of Metro Vancouver’s Liquid Waste Committee.
“Before (this) it was dental floss, and condoms, and feminine products,” Stewart says.
In a decidedly low-tech look at what happens on the other end of local toilets, Stewart pulls out two glass bottles filled with water.
One has a ball of toilet paper inside.
He shakes it, and it dissolves into bits in just seconds.
The other, he explains, has a so-called "flushable" wipe that’s been marinating for three months.
It’s fully intact.
Stewart shakes it, and nothing happens.
"Flushable" wipes, he explains, are some of the biggest culprits, because there is nothing "flushable" about them.
They’ve also become the star of a Metro Vancouver public service campaign called "the unflushables."
Last year, Metro Vancouver even introduced mascots, appropriately named Poo and Pee, to draw attention to the trouble anything besides the twins and toilet paper might cause.
In March, Washington state became the first U.S. state with a wipes labelling law requiring "Do Not Flush" markings on wipe containers.
And Stewart thinks British Columbia could be next.
Paying the price for what you flush
While "flushable" wipes might confuse some consumers, the people at the other end can understand why someone might choose to flush gloves or a risk.
"I think (there are) a lot of people that are fearful for what their mask has on it," Stewart says.
When I ask the acting superintendent for the plant, Mike Hughes, if anything surprises him anymore when it comes to what people flush, his answer is just one word: "No."
And while your toilet may suck it out of sight, the cost connected with it doesn’t vanish simply by pushing that tiny chrome lever or porcelain-mounted button.
Every so often, I learn, teams have to go into the 30 plus pump stations upstream from plants like this one.
They twist wheels and turn wrenches and eventually clear out what’s called a "rag," a giant bundle of wipes, clothing, dish towels, and grease that bonds together and clogs the pipes.
It isn’t pretty.
Across Canada, Stewart says, all that extra maintenance and repairs cost taxpayers roughly a quarter of a billion dollars a year, money that’s wasted and could be used for other projects.
Stewart’s advice next time you’re thinking about flushing anything besides number one, two, or toilet tissue?
"Put that in the garbage."
The folks at the Annacis Island Wastewater Treatment Plant will thank you.