“Flushable” wipes have been disparaged for wreaking havoc on wastewater treatment plants — causing giant clogs, overflows, and equipment breakdowns.
These problems are very real, and many utilities are feeling the financial and operational burdens. But pre-moistened wipes labeled “flush safe” are not entirely to blame.
Baby wipes, which are not labeled flushable, are the second-highest cause of pump clogs and sewer obstructions, triggering 24 percent (after public restroom paper towels, which triggered 42 percent), according to a study presented in a Water Environmental Federation (WEF) webcast. Wipes labeled “flushable” accounted for only 8 percent of clogs in the study.
These stats don’t quite let “flushables” off the hook, says Robert Villee, WEF's Collection Systems Committee chair.
“Baby wipes have been around for a long time and they weren’t a problem,” says Villee, who is also the executive director at the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority in New Jersey. “People always threw them away. Then in the mid-2000s, manufacturers started introducing so-called “flushable” wipes that look very similar to baby wipes. That is when people started flushing baby wipes.”
Marketing campaigns for “flushable” wipes, which encourage adults to use pre-moistened wipes for personal hygiene, have driven many consumers to the store, says Villee. But the stark difference in price between the products labeled flushable and traditional baby wipes has prompted many consumers to purchase baby wipes for adult personal hygiene use.
The average “flushable” personal hygiene wipe costs $0.04 per wipe, while the average baby wipe costs $0.02 per wipe. This is because baby wipes are not designed to break down in water, and are therefore cheaper for manufacturers to produce.
“So-called flushable wipes are much more fragile and are designed to break down in water,” explains Villee. “Some do and some don’t, but 100 percent of baby wipes are not flushable. People are flushing them because they associate them with these “flushable” wipes on the market and think it is OK or gross not to flush them.”
WEF is taking a proactive approach to solving this problem. The organization is working with the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) and wipes manufacturers to sort out a solution. Efforts are moving forward, says Villee, but not without challenges.
“Some manufacturers are willing to work with us, but others ask why we can’t just put in the screens and grinders that can deal with these wipes,” says Villee. “What they don’t understand is that the cost, energy, and O&M requirements of these sort of technologies is a huge expense, and one that most likely would not even entirely solve the problem.”
INDA has also done its part, recently revising voluntary guidelines for manufacturers to determine which wipes can be called flushable and recommending a universal do-not-flush logo to be prominently displayed on non-dispersible products.
These changes help, says Villee, but more is needed.
“Labeling would certainly help and that is one of the things we are pushing. Right now the standards INDA has on what they can label flushable need to be much more stringent and they need to be required, not voluntary, to be effective,” says Villee. “But I don’t think labeling would solve all the problems.”
The only true solution Villee sees is for all wipe manufacturers — both of baby and personal hygiene varieties — to change their formulas to break down enough to not cause clogs in collections systems. The financial burden this will require is not one that is popular among manufacturers.
“It is feasible to make flushable baby wipes, but it is going to cost the manufacturers more, and in turn the consumers,” says Villee. “But the wipe industry needs to take responsibility for this problem.”
Some wipe manufacturers have taken responsibility. Kimberly Clark, working with WEF and wastewater equipment manufacture Xylem, participated in a study to determine the most flushable wipe formula. They now have a product on the market that breaks down as soon as it hits water. Kimberly Clark has also been at the forefront of educating consumers as to which products they sell that are and are not flushable.
It is on the wastewater industry to motivate other wipe manufacturers to follow suit. The most effective methods to do this are through education, media pressure, and by pushing regulatory changes, explains Villee.
“We need to work to encourage the manufacturers to change the formula of any wipes that may be used for personal hygiene and not just focus on flushables,” he says. “I see the pendulum swinging our way, but I don’t know how or when it will happen and I know it is going to take a lot of work from everyone involved.”
Image credit: "Butt wipes," basykes © 2006, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/