Holiday Festivities: Protect Our Sewer System

Mmmmm! Turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy…and of course, pie! We’re all looking forward to our holiday feasts surrounded by family and friends, but as your water and wastewater provider, we ask you to PLEASE consider what you are putting down your drains once the plates are cleared from the table. Fats, oils, and grease (known as “F.O.G.”) are the enemy of our sewer system causing blockages overtime as they build up in the pipes meant to carry liquids and solubles to our wastewater treatment plant. What you put in your garbage disposal also needs to be considered since the appliance is not designed to shred up certain types of food items. And of course, with extra guests using the toilets, hide the wet wipes or post a friendly reminder not to flush them – these too clog pipes and no one wants to call a plumber during festivities!

It’s almost magical watching all the discarded food scraps disappear as you push it off plates and into the sink where the flow of the water aided by the power of the garbage disposal carries it off to somewhere else. But we never look at it this way. We just want it gone. We’re tired. We want to relax. Cleanup is a matter of convenience…until a clog occurs. Then we’re running around trying to find that plunger, hoping it’s a quick fix so we can just finish up! Don’t say we didn’t warn you! Here are a few tips to help ensure those invaluable pipes remain unrestricted and flowing year-round:

How to property dispose of F.O.G. in the kitchen. Provided by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)

Proper Disposal of Fats, Oils, Grease (F.O.G.)

Typically a byproduct of cooking, fats, oils, and grease (F.O.G.) harm the pipes attached to our drains the same way they clog our arteries. The EPA estimates that approximately 47 percent of sewer backups are grease-related. FOG can be found in many types of food including:

  • Meat fats
  • Salad dressing
  • Shortening and lard
  • Butter and margarine
  • Food scraps
  • Gravy and sauces
  • Dairy products
  • Baking goods

Instead of pouring items containing F.O.G. down the drain, follow these tips:

  • Scrape F.O.G. and food scraps from trays, plates, pots, pans, utensils, grills and cooking surfaces into a disposable container or directly into your trashcan.
  • If you have F.O.G. left in a pot or skillet after cooking, let it cool and then pour into a disposable container. Soak up any left in the pan by wiping it with a paper towel or newspaper. You can simply throw it in your trash or freeze it first to solidify and minimize leaking.
  • Use a strainer over your drain to catch food scraps then dump it in the trash.
  • Most F.O.G. can be safely reused if you strain out the solids. Consider storing it in a clean container and then use it for cooking later. There are many other creative uses for F.O.G. – search the internet!
  • For larger quantities, there are places that will recycle grease and used cooking oil for you. The Lake Travis Regional Re-Use & Recycling Center would be the closest location, although it is only open several times a year.

Foods Unfriendly to Garbage Disposals

In addition to avoiding greasy, oily foods from going down your drains, minimize the use of your garbage disposal. Some items can harm the appliance while others shouldn’t enter our sewer system:

  • Fibrous, stringy, starchy food, such as banana peels, celery, potato peels, and green beans can get wound around the grinder plate causing it to minimize in efficiency or become jammed.
  • Things you can’t cut with a knife, like bones or fruit pits.
  • Abrasive materials, such as eggshells and coffee grounds. They just pile up and cause a sludgy mess within the grinding chamber. They’re great for compost though!
  • Pasta and rice, which swells with water and can also stay stuck in the grinding chamber. It may be the cause of that smell emitting from your sink in the morning!

The 3 Ps

While we’re at it, another drain down which all kinds of things are thrown is your toilet. Wastewater from the kitchen sink, the shower, the washing machine, and yes, the toilet all go to the same place for processing and cleaning. For the same reason we don’t want food scraps and other insolubles down the sink drain, avoid throwing anything but the three Ps (pee, poo, and toilet paper) into the toilet.

Our Pipes Connect Us All

By giving you this advice, we are being a little selfish because even if improper disposal doesn’t cause a clog within your home, it may still restrict the flow in pipes between your neighborhood and our community wastewater treatment plant. The water you used to push the food scraps down the drain may have been enough to get it across your property line, but once it enters our main sewer lines, it intermingles with whatever your neighbors and your neighbor’s neighbors also discarded. We’re lucky to have fairly new infrastructure with pipes throughout our community made of PVC, rather than copper, clay or concrete; this plastic material has an extremely smooth lining so less debris gets caught up on any rough edges, helping to prevent buildup and clogs…but it’s not foolproof. Over time, food scraps mix with other insolubles like hair, wet wipes, and, another one we find often in our system: condoms, and congeal to form what is known in the wastewater industry as “fatbergs” preventing water from flowing freely throughout the system. We, of course, have measures in place to prevent this, such as periodically inspecting pipes internally using closed-circuit cameras and pumping sludge that makes it to the intermittent lift stations throughout the community (see our recent article posted in the Lake Travis View for a picture of what this looks like – if you dare!) but all of this costs money. Roger Fry, our wastewater operations supervisor, estimates we haul off an average of 500 gallons of solid waste to a permitted disposal facility at each collection period, which costs us about $10,000 each year. Any inflation in our operating costs can impact the wastewater rates of our customers…so help us keep costs low by helping us keep our entire wastewater system running smoothly!