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Athens News Matters: Pandemic Waste Levels Are Up, and It's Affecting Our Water Systems

The 900-pound mass spins slowly on a lasso tethered to the arm of a small Bobcat. It smells like sewage, and looks like an enlarged version of something you might find clogging your bathtub.

Mopheads. A solid accumulation of material sifted out of wastewater which can clog and destroy equipment. Staff at the Middle Oconee Water Reclamation facility retrieved the biggest mophead of the year earlier this month. They call it “the monster.”

“This just caught us off guard because it happened so fast, and got so big in that time,” says Steven Echols, maintenance worker and mechanic at the plant. “Its just ... that's not normal.”

Echols and his work partner, Danny Barron, both say that while 900 pounds is surely a record this year, they’ve had to remove more and more mopheads from their equipment since the pandemic started, which could cause damages worth thousands of dollars in repairs.

Athens’ three water reclamation facilities collect water from homes, businesses, schools and hospitals. That water gets treated extensively by biological processes and UV cleaning before being released back into our waterways. Athens has three water sources — the North Oconee and Middle Oconee rivers, and the Bear Creek Reservoir.

The treatment process starts at headworks, where water comes in and debris gets filtered out.

“So everything comes right where you're standing, comes in this way and grabs everything from there,” Barron says. “And it’ll just keep tumbling.”

Baron points at one of two bandscreens, a machine that scrolls vertically through waste water. The bandscreen is supposed to catch solids — cloths, insoluble paper and plastics, for example. But if one of those solids gets stuck, it can keep tumbling and catch other solids, just like a ball of yarn, Echols explains.

Usually, the biggest culprits in a mophead are so-called “flushable” wipes. Unless a wipe is water soluble, it should never go down the toilet. But unprecedented items started showing up in wastewater since the pandemic started, like masks and needles. Ear loops on masks can get tied around other things, and that can quickly evolve into a mophead.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PPE cannot be recycled. Those items should just go to landfills, but often don't. A study of 11 nations over 14 months saw mask litter increase over 80% from March to October 2020, compared to the previous year. That study published in the Nature Sustainability journal last year also saw gloves and disinfectant wipes double as a proportion of litter compared to the previous year.

“Anything that is put on that ground has the potential to be blown into our waterways. And where do we get our drinking water from?” says Laurie Loftin. “You risk polluting your drinking water source with this waste.”

Loftin is the water conservation coordinator for Athens-Clarke County. Loftin primarily focuses on water quantity, not quality — her words. But the arrival of more debris can negatively impact the water reclamation process. In fact, it could cost consumers more money.

“The poor quality water that we have coming to our facilities to begin with, the more chemicals and processes that we might have to implement in order to remove those contaminants,” Loftin says. “How do you pay for that? That is through rate structure and water rates that we collect from our customers.”

Loftin says even with such a clear correlation, the message gets lost. Made evident by the 900-pound mophead, things like toothbrushes, underwear, period products, hair ties and kitchen greases still get flushed. Such a varied array of items isn’t unusual, but the quantity is concerning.

The study in Nature Sustainability noted that high litter rates for PPE corresponded with public health guidelines during the research time-frame. When people were told to wear masks, litter went up. When mask mandates loosened, litter went down. Glove litter went down after mask usage went up, and wipe litter fluctuated.

Developed at the University of Georgia in 2010 and used worldwide now, Debris Tracker allows Clarke County’s Solid Waste department to track tonnage and type of litter in town. From March 2020 to March 2022, plastics were littered the most. Foam fragments, beverage bottles and food wrappers were the highest collected items. We know that quarantine and other COVID precautions have driven up single-use plastic consumption, and with ever changing public safety guidelines, human behavior will continue to shift. How that affects the environment in the long run is unknown.

Luckily, there are two easy ways to ensure our water stays clean locally. Don’t litter, and remember the four P’s.

“Only pee, poo, paper and puke are all that should ever go down a toilet,” Loftin says. “And when I say paper that is only toilet paper.”