On Twitter, Simon Lyons – senior engineer at Cork City Council – is known as @ThePoliteEng, a handle which is the abbreviation of The Polite Engineer.
And it sure is, unless you’re a little mountain of wet wipes or a colossal fatberg – those frozen masses of fats, oils, and greases (FOGs) that clog drains and sewers around the world. His politeness does not extend to them.
Lyons has worked with Cork City Council since 2016 after returning from Dubai, where he worked as an engineer for almost eight years. Unusually for a municipal worker, he is active and engaged on social media about what he does. He uses Twitter as an educational tool to show people in Cork (and around the world) what exactly ends up in the city’s sewage system.
But social networks for Lyon are a two-way street: he regularly responds to people in Cork who slip into his DMs, questioning him about shady dumps or foul odors.
One morning this week, Buzz traveled with Lyons and his colleague Tony Donovan to a pumping station in downtown Cork, a stone’s throw from the River Lee, which runs through the city. Pumping stations are the workhorses of every drainage and sewer system in the country. They are also where much of what goes down the toilet ends up clogging the system.
If you’ve ever wondered what ends up in a sewage system, well, you’d be right to think of just about anything – toys, rags, towels, but also diapers – which like the Lyons and Donovan pointed out, expand to the size of balloons once they start to absorb water. Hair is also discharged in large quantities into the sewers and the drainage system. It has been dropped off in much larger quantities as the pandemic has turned everyone into stay-at-home hairdressers.
You might not think it, and it’s clear a lot of people haven’t, but the hair of thousands upon thousands of heads, well, that too is making its way into the fatbergs that make the problem worse. system clogging.
The weight of 150 cars
Ahead of World Toilet Day earlier this month, Lyon released a dataset of wet wipes collected at one of Cork City Council pumping stations in the city’s south, dating back to the past three years. and broken down into monthly readings.
This tweet got people talking and spoke in Lyon – “There was a guy on Twitter who engaged very helpfully, saying,” So, are you saying it’s a kilogram per person in the city?’
âYou know what? Yeah,â Lyons said. That’s a staggering amount, considering that wet wipes aren’t meant to be flushed down the toilet to begin with.
As Lyons pointed out in the responses below his tweet, âThis graph says we throw around 230 tonnes (!!!) of wet wipes and other ‘splashes’ down the toilet every year. Scary number, isn’t it! “
Ban wet wipes
Just this week in the UK, The Times newspaper published an editorial calling for a ban on wet wipes. As the document points out, of the 11 billion disposable wet wipes sold each year, an estimated 2.5 billion are mistakenly flushed down the toilet.
The situation has become so dire that “sonar and laser scans of the Thames bed have revealed a ‘reef’ of wet wipes that has grown to the size of two tennis courts in West London.”
As Lyons says, “What I realized was people were a little shocked at what was coming out (at a pumping station). It’s 230 tonnes a year. That’s over 150 cars. wipes that come out every year. It’s madness. “
The problem of wet wipes flushed down toilets and clogging drains and sewage systems existed long before Covid-19, Lyons says, but the pandemic and widespread use of the wipes have put more strain on the system.
In Ireland we still have a long way to go in educating everyone about what should and should not be flushed down our sewers and toilets, and what the effects may be.
According to a 2019 survey by An Taisce, 58% of adults pour fats, oil and grease in the sink.
While Lyons and Donovan told me about the city’s sewage and drainage system, two contractors pulled out a pump from the station which is across from Bridewell Garda Station in the city center.
Lying on its side now, the effluent flowing out, they open it to reveal the rags and wipes that have stuck inside.
The pump is still running, but it has to work a lot more to do its job.
âThese wipes will have an energy cost and a maintenance cost. Even if we weren’t there today, it would eventually get stuck, âLyons said, gesturing to the station below us. A blockage requires the contractors to be called again, but on an emergency call.
A Twitter advocate
Prior to joining Cork City Council in 2016, Lyons worked in the private sector; for about eight years he worked in Dubai as a project manager for CH2M Hill, an American engineering company, on the type and scale of projects that only princes could imagine and finance.
But working in the civil service was an itch he wanted to get rid of and soon after returning to Cork he joined city council as a senior engineer.
Like many, Simon entered the public service with good intentions. As he said of his previous job in Dubai, âYou spend a lot of time making money for others, but are you making the world that much better?
“While at least with here (with city council) you can come in and say, ‘OK, it’s a good thing we’re doing and if we’re doing it right, it’s a very good thing we’re doing. “. “
With his advocacy on Twitter, Lyons shines a light on what lies beneath us, and how important it is that what is meant to be tossed is not emptied.
âThe idea behind releasing the wipes volumeâ¦ part of me is hoping people might want to know what the month is. Maybe it’s forty people, maybe it’s fifty people.
But, social media is a lot like a good drainage system: it reaches a lot of people effectively, just like Lyon’s post.