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With toilet paper in short supply, people are flushing other products, clogging sewer lines

Global pandemic affects respiratory, not gastrointestinal system, so what gives?
Durango city employees Kelton Richmond, left, Bobby Martinez, center, and Alex Cornish use a high-pressure water system to remove sewer clogs in South Durango. City sewer lines have taken a beating during the coronavirus pandemic as people flush napkins, paper towels and other non-toilet paper products.

With toilet paper in short supply, the city of Durango is pleading with residents to not flush other paper products, which have been wreaking havoc on sewer lines since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We knew it was coming based on what’s happening in our community with the toilet paper issue,” said Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director. “But now we’re really starting to see it manifest.”

As the coronavirus spread across the U.S., people started to panic-buy, assuming there could be long days and nights of quarantine or self-isolation ahead.

But it wasn’t milk or bread that flew off the shelves. Yes, some people cleared out canned foods. But by far, the most prized item in grocery stores became toilet paper.

Even now, several weeks after the coronavirus became a part of daily life, toilet paper is hard to come by.

The “Warthog,” developed by StoneAge Inc., a Durango company, uses water and pressure to remove sewer clogs and tree roots from an 8-inch clay pipe in South Durango.

Tamra O’Toole, the front-end manager at Albertsons, said in the first few weeks of the outbreak, a shipment of toilet paper would last about 30 minutes before being sold out.

Now, supplies last a little longer, but not by much. When a shipment arrives, it’s usually gone that day, even as the store limits customers to one purchase per person.

“It’s slowing down, but you’re not guaranteed to find it,” she said.

As a result, people are using alternative paper products, which are causing a host of issues for the city’s utilities department.

Biggs said the city has been doubling its efforts to clean sewer lines to avoid backups.

“We’re doing additional diligence,” he said. “But it’s a matter of when, not if, we have a backup, particularly if people are flushing other paper products.”

Paper towels, napkins and so-called flushable wipes should not be flushed because those products do not degrade in water like toilet paper.

The No. 1 threat, Biggs said, is a backup in a person’s own home.

“That’s the most likely place to have a problem,” he said. “If people are flushing things they shouldn’t, it’s more likely to get stuck in their own pipe, before it ever gets to the city’s main lines.”

The city of Durango uses a remote camera to inspect sewer pipes.
Tree roots and other debris penetrate the top of an 8-inch clay sewer line in south Durango. The white material along the sides of the pipe is grease from the residential area.

Blockages are also showing up at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, where the plant’s bar screen, a mechanical system that removes solids, is working overtime.

“It’s catching a lot of paper products, but sadly, it can’t catch every bit,” Biggs said. “And if it gets to the plant, it goes into our solid waste system, so our dumpsters are filling up quicker.”

So why, in a global pandemic that affects the respiratory system, not the gastrointestinal system, is toilet paper the coveted product?

While people who study these sorts of human tendencies are still trying to unpack what the hoarding of toilet paper says about our society, what’s clear is the global coronavirus outbreak has brought about strange times, said Brian Burke, a professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College.

As a result, there’s really no template or clear direction about how to handle it or what to do, Burke said. So, we look toward others for guidance in terms of how to act.

“In other words, people have been overbuying or even hoarding toilet paper because people have been overbuying toilet paper,” he said. “When we see other people panic or buy certain items at the grocery store, we tend to do the same.”

Durango city employees James Law, left, and Jake Yost watch a video feed as a remote camera crawls through an 8-inch clay pipe in South Durango. The city is paying close attention to sewer lines as people flush products other than toilet paper.

Panic induces more panic, is the point, Burke said. It’s a psychological construct called “social influence.”

“That’s been the hardest thing about this pandemic, is that we really do not know how much we ought to panic, how to balance the importance of flattening the curve and saving lives with individual freedoms and the health of the economy,” Burke said.

“We do not know how worried we should be until we observe others, and we are receiving highly mixed messages from experts or pseudo-experts in government and beyond.”

In the meantime, people are left to search aimlessly among the empty aisles for simple toilet paper. But, if you’re one of the lucky ones to stumble upon the prized paper product, leave some for the next person.

The “Warthog,” developed by StoneAge Inc., a Durango company, uses water and pressure to blast through sewer clogs and tree roots obstructing an 8-inch clay pipe in South Durango.

“The influx of people buying up all the toilet paper has caused people not doing that to have shortages,” said Jason Mitchell, general manager of Nature’s Oasis.

A spokeswoman with City Market wrote in an email that manufacturing plants and supply chain teams are “working tirelessly to help replenish our inventories and ensure that the supplies our customers need are reaching our stores as quickly as possible.”

Mitchell said even now, shipments that come in are gone in a day or two.

“Initially, we tried to put a limit, but now we’re not getting enough in to even limit it,” he said. “But that’s about the only shelf we don’t have full.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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