I hear the gurgling toilet from the next room. For a moment, I think that maybe my dog is using it as a drinking fountain, as he is wont to do, but this isn’t a benign hydrological event. This sounds like Khaleesi’s dragons fighting an ichthyosaurus in Dr. Von Dark’s Tunnel of Terror, a scenario that would definitely increase the wait times at Water Country. I bravely venture in to see what’s the matter, and when I lift the lid, a geyser shoots out and hits the opposite wall. I scream a manly scream and slam down the lid. It’s like the Fountains of Bellagio in there.
I suspect that the root of the problem, as with so many things, lies in the hubris of mankind. Remember The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Mickey Mouse thinks his magic broom can carry all that water, but before he knows it the broom is out of control and he’s got major flood damage in his castle. (English majors: Feel free to point out that the Disney cartoon is actually based on a Goethe poem called “Der Zauberlehrling,” which itself derives from the ancient Greek tale “Philopseudes” by Lucian. Nerds!) Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we think that we can make our lives more convenient without paying any sort of price. But oftentimes, that’s not the way the world works. Goethe could’ve told you: There’s no such thing as flushable wipes.
Now, I can’t prove that flushable wipes caused my toilet tsunami. But later that morning I spot a huge truck parked down the street, snaking a hose into the sewer. The logo on the truck says “Vacall,” so when I get home I look it up. According to the company website, the truck on my street is a P-Series combination sewer cleaner, equipped with “vacuum and jetting systems that enable municipalities and contractors to open clogged sewer lines and remove debris.” I’m fascinated and spend way too much time reading about sewer trucks—that bad boy’s got a Roots blower, a 12-cubic-foot debris tank and a hydraulically powered triplex plunger—before wandering back around to the question of why it’s there in the first place. Suspect numero uno: the wildly popular, overly rugged towelettes that now perch atop the tanks of toilets across the land. America’s heinies have never been shinier, but at what cost?
The story of flushable wipes is the story of the eternal tension between self-interest and the collective good. You might say, “I am but a single person. My bathroom decisions are inconsequential in the grand scheme of a city sewer system.” But when enough people assume that attitude, civilization is hostage to the hydraulically powered triplex plunger.
I’m not sure exactly when wipes turned the corner from curiosity to controversy, but the situation is probably akin to how heroin made a comeback thanks to the ubiquity of prescription drugs: The wipes get into the bathroom when you have kids, and then at some point the parents get hooked. Maybe you were low on TP and they were within reach. Maybe you just felt like getting wild. Whatever the reason, you try the flushable wipe, and that’s it: Scott’s Tissue may as well be scraps of birch bark.
In the name of anthropological research, I went to Facebook to pose a simple question: Flushable wipes, yay or nay? It turns out this is a wildly divisive topic. Opinions were strong, split between the Right to Wipes and the Pipe Protectors. The latter group argues that flushable wipes clog the sewers, cause problems for everyone and therefore should not be used. The former group agrees but uses them anyway. The only thing they have in common is the belief that the term “flushable” is a lie, a downright Orwellian piece of marketing artifice. Look, the Magna Carta is flushable. That doesn’t mean you should ram it down your toilet.
On the anti-wipe side, one friend wrote, “My husband sells liquid microbes to waste water plants. They can tell you what a nightmare flushable wipes are on the facilities.” Another said, “Don’t kid yourself. They are not flushable. A $330 plumbing bill proved that to me.” Yet another fellow posted a photo of an excavated pipe that was sliced open to reveal a wad of wipes. He said, “This is what flushable wipes look like in a septic tank baffle. Ask me how I know.”
The pro-wipe camp was more succinct, sticking mostly with “Yay.” I guess you don’t need to elaborate much on the appeal. But one savvy globetrotter opined, “One Wipe Charlies are awesome when you’re traveling. Airport and gas station bathroom sewers aren’t of my concern.” Take that, LaGuardia!
It’s ironic that after all these years spent making fun of Europe for its bidets and Japan for its high-tech toilets, Americans are now pursuing the same result in a completely inefficient, sewer-ruining way. I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know that if you see a Vacall truck on your street, you’d better head home quick. In the words of Lucian: clogged up, lids down.