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Martin Scott and his team know what you flush down your toilet, and there are some days when they aren’t happy about it.

The Lead Plant Operator at Hamilton City Council’s Pukete Wastewater Treatment Plant, Martin has been working for the Council for five years at the ever-growing industrial operation.

One thing for certain is Martin is not a fan of wet wipes, but the self-described “used water specialist” can understand when and why your toddlers might launch a plastic toy into your toilet.

“We are the toilet for 160,000 people, and for industry, too,” says Martin, wandering across the expansive Pukete plant.

“We are the end of the line,” he says. “All your bathrooms, pumping stations, industrial sites… they all feed into the sewer network, and it all comes here.”

The plant’s screening room – where solid non-biodegradable items are removed from raw sewage – is what Martin calls the “first line of defence”. The room contains a group of screens which act as a sieve, removing large particles from what ends up in the city’s wastewater network.

“Wet wipes are among the things that really shouldn’t be flushed, they are a major concern,” Martin says, adding sanitary items, condoms and cotton buds to the list of items which find their way to the plant’s protective screens – but shouldn’t be there.

More than a ton of material is removed from the protective screens every day, put into a giant rubbish bin, and taken away to landfill.

Many of the popular wipes contain plastic fibre which can clog up pipes and pumps fundamental to the operation of the multi-million-dollar plant, Martin says. In a worst-case scenario, a blockage caused by wet wipes could result in a breakdown of part of the operation, and in turn lead to an issue for the Council in meeting its discharge consent conditions – and additional costs to the Council to maintain this vital service.

“Because the wipes are plastic or fibrous, fat congeals on them… the lumps get bigger and bigger, and harder and harder,” he says.

You might have heard of the great London “fatberg”, a congealed mass of nappies, wet wipes and oil blocking the sewers beneath the British capital: Martin says that could happen underneath Hamilton, too.

“It’s a continuing problem,” Martin says. “The use of wet wipes appears to be increasing: there’s a generation of people who don’t know anything other than wet wipes … we need to wean people off them. It’s this ‘throw-away’ society, and we’re all guilty of it.”

The “don’t flush your wipes” message is one the Council’s City Waters team is constantly reinforcing through the Bin It, Don’t Flush It campaign, and it’s even featured as part of the recent Your Neighbourhood community engagement events, where the team had a stand.

Martin believes many people simply aren’t aware of the impact of what they’re flushing: “They’re seeing it as one individual flush – we see it as 160,000 flushes multiple times a day.”

Martin’s team’s role is diverse, and the ex-British military man says no two days are the same. With major investment underway to expand the Pukete operation to meet the needs of the growing city, he and his team of three are operating and maintaining the processes and equipment, managing contractors and visitors to the site, as well as health and safety requirements.

Although many people have no idea how the plant operates – they simply flush and forget – Martin’s keen to have more people in the community understand how the plant’s largely natural processes work.

The plant’s staff are hosting increasing visits from stakeholder organisations such as Waikato University, whose staff and students are interested in how the process works – visits they are actively encouraging to build understanding. A public open day in late 2017 saw several hundred people tour the plant and be informed about how it all works.

Although there’s plenty of jokes available about what happens at the plant – and Martin’s not short of humour – it’s still an important part of the Council’s business and one vital to the city.

“We take our responsibility very seriously – from river to river.”


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