Kids and adults alike are constantly flushing the darndest of objects down their toilet bowls. Some of these things – like wipes, napkins, condoms, and tampons – are well known culprits that clog pipes, jam up equipment, and gunk up the flow to our wastewater treatment plants.
But what ends up at King County’s wastewater treatment plants gets way weirder than that. Somehow, random items find their way to the plants leaving our staff to wonder: ‘What the flush is this doing here?!’
LEGOS, jewelry, rubber duckies, action figures … the list goes on. At West Point Treatment Plant, the staff who have to fish this stuff out have assembled a trophy collection of sorts to display the many oddities they’ve found.
The true age of the trophy collection is unknown, but it’s been sitting on a window ledge above Main Control for years. “No one seems to know who started collecting the toys or why,” says Louis Shipley, a 5-year plant operator.
Currently numbering 18, the collection ranges in size of an 8-inch-tall wooden candle holder to a 5-inch-tall miniature action figure. They were brought down recently and dusted off for a photo-shoot for this story.
First line of defense
The collection comes from West Point’s screening room, the plant’s first line of defense as a never-ending flow of wastewater from the region’s homes and businesses enters the facility to be treated. There, large machines called bar screens filter out material of different sizes, and the trash is then raked up and dumped onto a system of conveyor belts before making its way onto a dump truck.
When clogs and jams occur in the screening room, staff have to shut down the equipment and that slows down the treatment process. The most common headache to all involved are disposable wipes (which are not flushable, even if the package says so!). Because wipes don’t break down in water, they come into the plants fully intact and build up on the surfaces of the bar screens. Staff have to constantly scrape them off.
Occasionally, something dramatic happens. “I once had to deal with a nasty jam that was caused by a giant commercial fishing net,” says operations supervisor Randy Smith. “I’m pretty sure someone fishing along the shore dumped it into a storm drain somewhere, it got tangled up with trash, and it took hours of work for us get it fixed.”
Money down the drain
“The most gut-wrenching thing to see is money going up the conveyor belt,” says operator-in-training Brain Klakcus. “I once saw a chunk of a $100 bill go up one of the belts. It hurt so bad knowing it was going to a landfill somewhere.”
When they’re not sent to the landfill, coins and shredded bills are every so often found by staff as they are clearing out, or un-jamming the screens. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how much money people in King County flush down the drain or why people do it, but it’s quite literally money down the drain.
Looks are deceiving
Although the figures may appear cute and harmless, appearances are deceiving. Each item in the trophy collection at West Point is there because it has caused mischief – a jam, or damage to a piece of equipment. To West Point staff, they are an unsettling reminder of all that can go wrong with a misplaced plastic smile, or a toothy grin.