Coronavirus panic causing unprecedented blockages in Auckland's sewage system

Big coronavirus panic buying is leading to big problems in Auckland's wastewater systems.

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They might kill germs, but when flushed wet wipes wreak havoc on the sewage system. Source: 1 NEWS

1 NEWS can reveal wet wipes flushed down toilets are causing pumping stations to break down weekly when normally they have problems only once or twice a year.

Repairs for breakdowns are costing ratepayers three times as much as regular maintenance.

Watercare staff say the sanitizing wipes problems are unprecedented and came as people became more concerned about avoiding coronavirus.

"People are scared of Covid-19 so they're cleaning a lot more and instead of chucking it in the rubbish, they want to get rid of the virus, so they chuck it down the toilet - out of sight out of mind," waste plant technician Alain Sayers told 1 NEWS.

"But really it comes to us, and we see it, and it's a lot more damage than you think," he said.

Alain Sayers with mounds of wet wipes found in Auckland sewage system. Source: Supplied

1 NEWS was shown huge mounds of used sanitizing wipes once they had been pulled by hand from screening machinery at the Pukekohe Waste Water Treatment Plant.

"So once you get this they will block our pump stations. If they block our pump stations our pump stations overflow and we design our pump stations so that it will go into streams and rivers," Watercare environmental care manager Nathaniel Wilson told 1 NEWS.

"They've been overflowing more than once a week," he said.

Sanitizing wipes often say they can be flushed, but Watercare staff said this was bad advice and they should never go down the toilet.

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The handy cleaning product contains non-biodegradable plastic and the UK is considering a ban. Source: Seven Sharp

Meanwhile, a top health official says there are better things to clean with.

"Just use general cleansers. Wet wipes are probably not quite so effective," Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield said.

Mr Sayers takes pride and joy in keeping his expanding plant working, but said the wipes influx is testing.

"At the end of the day we’re exposing ourselves to stuff that we don't want to be exposed to," he said.

"Nobody really wants to be involved in that stuff."

Wet wipes causing blockages in Auckland's sewage system. Source: Supplied

Why sanitizing wipes should not be flushed

Nathaniel Wilson showed 1 NEWS what happens when toilet paper goes in water, and what happens when sanitizing wipes do.

"Toilet paper is fine - natural product made from wood. When we put it in and stir it around it breaks down really quickly," he said.

"And as that trickles through our sewer network it just keeps breaking up more and more and more."

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The campaign is looking to solve the costly problems caused by the disposable wipes clogging up the sewage systems. Source: 1 NEWS

But he said sanitizing wipes are not like this at all.

"They're designed to be wet and stay together. The big problem in the wet wipes, which is all this stringy material, [is] it doesn't break down," he said.

Dr Wilson said Watercare workers can't do anything with it because it blocks up screening machines, so wipes are pulled out and taken to a dump.

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Consumers are being told to stop flushing wet wipes down the toilet, which results in an estimated annual maintenance cost of $5 million. Source: 1 NEWS

The wipes connect with each other and make a large collection stuck together, which cannot be pumped.

"It's pretty serious because the more people flush this down, the more maintenance, and it's more for Auckland ratepayers," Mr Sayers said.

"Since the Covid-19 scare, it's definitely a lot worse," he said.