One of humanity’s most private and pervasive hygiene habits is changing. And Sal Scapelito’s job is a sign that the trend may not be sustainable.
Every two minutes, the 31-year-old sewage treatment worker cleans off a five-foot-wide device designed to prevent tree branches from entering north Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility.
But it’s not just filtering sticks. Instead, it’s strung with spongy stalactites of whitish tissue. Scapelito jabs a pole at the quivering mass, swooshing it into a bin, where its composition is clear to him: “It’s majority wipes,” he says.
Wipes, as in those moist towelettes used to clean the bottoms of babies and, increasingly, adults. People have been using toilet paper since the 1850s but have turned to wet wipes over the past decade. That’s been a boon for makers of so-called flushable wipes, such as Kimberly-Clark Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and Nice-Pak Products Inc. But it’s come at a big cost for cities, who say the wipes often don’t dissolve and form sewage blockages, the largest of which have earned a nasty moniker: fatbergs.