British Columbia·Feature

To flush or not to flush?

Metro Vancouver is stepping up the fight to prolong the life of the region's sewer pipes by educating people who dump grease, fats and oil down the drain.

Metro Vancouver wants you to know that there is only one answer to the question

Metro Vancouver is stepping up the fight to prolong the life of the region's sewer pipes by educating people who dump grease, fats and oil down the drain.

"At this point, we don't consider anything flushable other than the three P's: pee, poo and toilet paper," says Devin Kiyonaga, a project engineer for liquid waste services at Metro Vancouver.

Many products claim to be flushable, but the region says they can become costly problems, especially when combined with grease in sewer pipes.

Hygiene products, wipes and other materials get caught and clog sewer pipes. (David Horemans/CBC)

Grease forms into 'fatbergs'

Household oil, food fats and cooking grease dumped into the drain congeal into large sewer blocking masses, Kiyonaga says.

The grease then acts like a glue, binding to things like disposable wipes, hygiene products, dental floss, hair and garbage and leading to more clogging.

"The analogy used is kind of like a blocked artery.... Over time, the grease itself hardens like concrete," Kiyonaga said.

Over time grease forms large masses that have to be scraped away. (David Horemans/CBC)

The region wants to educate people before it becomes a 'fatberg' problem. London discovered a 14 tonne clog in 2013 after residents complained their toilets had stopped flushing. City workers traced it to a bus-sized blob.

A million-dollar problem 

Dumping grease down the drain doesn't only cause messy back-ups — it's also expensive, disgusting and dangerous work. Metro Vancouver spends $2 million annually to repair the damage caused by blockages.

Grease blobs are a continual problem for the region's 520-kilometre sewer network. (David Horemans/CBC)

Mike Longworth, a utility systems operator with Metro Vancouver, works with four purpose-built trucks to clean out sewer lines, wet-wells and pump stations.

Trouble spots need to be cleared weekly and monitored closely.

High-pressure hoses help break down material so that it can be removed for proper disposal. (David Horemans/CBC)

A dangerous, difficult job

Crews measure the water outputs of pipes and pumps in the hopes of catching issues before they become costly. When problems do arise, workers have to enter the sewers to scrape them clean.

The entire operation is monitored for the presence of dangerous gasses and other hazards. (David Horemans/CBC)

Water pumps inside stations, big and small, need to be cleaned by hand. Workers wear protective gloves to safeguard against unseen needles and glass shards that may be hiding inside the pumps.

If the damage is too extensive, the pipes will have to be replaced.

Devin Kiyonaga descends into the Glen Eagles pump station in Horseshoe Bay to monitor water flow. (David Horemans/CBC)

Wipe it, green bin it

Kiyonaga says people should properly dispose of fats by scraping or wiping them from the pan into your food compost green bin.

With larger quantities of grease — like deep fryer oil — people should store the oil in a container and drop it off at a recycling transfer station or a special Metro Vancouver waste day.

With files from The Early Edition