UK’s sewage system in danger of gridlock from toilet paper substitutes
Consumers have been warned of the dangers of substituting kitchen roll and wet wipes for toilet paper which – if flushed down the loo – could overwhelm the UK’s sewers.
Innocent consumer substitutions due to shortages caused by fears about the spread of coronovirus could create serious consequences which are critical to society and life, according to leading supply chain academic Prof Richard Wilding.
The warning comes amid panic buying sweeping UK supermarkets, which has resulted in some people trying to make a massive profit by selling toilet roll and hand sanitiser online.
The Guardian found one UK-based eBay user selling a 72-pack of Andrex toilet roll for £84.99 on Monday morning – triple its retail price.
The same seller, who appears to be based in the Midlands,has bulk-bought dozens of cleaning products and uploaded them on to eBay at huge mark-ups since Saturday night.
They include a 48-pack of Andrex loo roll for £59.99 – triple its retail price of £18 – and Wilko antibacterial wipes for £10.95, nearly 10 times the retail price of £1. The seller and eBay have been contacted for comment.
There appears to be no shortage of people willing to pay such extortionate prices: an auction for a 72-pack of Andrex toilet roll had reached £51 on eBay by Monday morning – nearly double its retail price of £27 – with more than five hours of bidding still to go.
Other sellers were also getting in on the profiteering. One had sold dozens of Regina nine-pack toilet rolls (RRP £2.49) for up to £12.99 since Saturday night. Another had sold an 18-pack of Andrex for £8.50 – more than triple the retail price of £2.50.
During the widespread panic buying of toilet paper and other tissue products it is unlikely that consumers are considering the consequences of using alternative products for tasks they were not designed for, says Wilding.
The UK’s largest water and wastewater service, Thames Water, is already warning customers not to “feed” so-called fatbergs – formed from a build-up of fat and non-biodegradable matter – by using kitchen towel and wet wipes as a substitute for toilet paper and flushing them down the loo. It says the only things that should be flushed are the 3Ps: poo, pee and (toilet) paper.
Wilding, a professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management, said: “We are seeing shortages of toilet paper but worryingly also shortages of paper kitchen towels and industrial paper towel used, for example, in garages and workshops and other wipe products.
“If kitchen towels, baby wipes or industrial papers are used as a replacement for toilet paper, our sewage systems could readily become blocked with the resulting chaos and increased health risks associated with this. Ultimately, water companies may not have the infrastructure and equipment to unblock the sewer system.”
Thames Water clears about 75,000 blockages from its network of sewers each year, at a cost of £18m. The bulk is caused by cooking fats and oils, which congeal in the sewers forming a thick layer around the pipe. This prevents sewage from flowing and can cause it to back up, especially when products containing plastic mix with the fat and set hard, forming fatbergs.
A Thames Water spokesperson said: “Fatbergs are a vivid reminder to us all that out of sight is not gone for ever. They are like monsters from the deep, lurking and slowly growing under our feet. Our advice is always to bin your fat and wipes, and don’t feed the fatberg.”
Wilding also warned of the impact of consumers seeking face masks. “As shortages in pharmacies and chemists start to bite, consumers are reported to be turning to building hardware suppliers for face masks and body suits. This means builders, tilers and plasterers or other workers who regularly use masks for protection against airborne particulate matter, for instance, are struggling to get hold of this equipment from certain suppliers.”