By Peter Chawaga
The term “flushables” is, of course, a misnomer. It describes pre-moistened towelettes of the type used for diligent personal wiping and takes its name from inaccurately descriptive advertising. The towelettes may be flushable in that they technically make it down the toilet drain when prompted, but they are not flushable in the sense that they are properly dispensed with that way.
After traveling down and into the sewer system, these fiendish rags do not break down like toilet paper but instead jam pipes, wrap themselves around motors, and mix with other substances to form monstrous, passage-blocking globules.
The phenomenon can cause millions of dollars in damage to a single utility and countless hours of maintenance work to remedy.
“Hundreds of employee hours are invested annually to unclog sewer lines, clear screens, and repair broken pumps,” said Nicole Kaiser, the water communications coordinator for DC Water. “Some utilities have estimated significant costs with damage from these items, including the installation of specialized equipment to break material down before they enter the treatment process.”
While playing defense against the problem with such specialized equipment is an option, the machinery can cost into the millions to install and does nothing to prevent the flushables from entering the system in the first place. Many of the affected parties have been forced to take action at the source of the problem, the manufacturers.
DC Water has partnered with 13 jurisdictions and water utilities in the region to educate customers about how to properly dispose the wipes (not down the toilet) in what the group calls the “Protect Your Pipes Campaign.” It appeals to residents by laying out the financial and public health cases against sewer backups. It will also launch an advertising campaign in spring 2016 featuring public transit ads, social media messages, and conventional broadcast engagement.
Possibly the most critical action has been in lobbying against the manufacturers themselves, fighting what is estimated by the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry to become a $9.3 billion industry by 2018.
“During a recent public comment period, DC Water and its regional partners expressed support for a Federal Trade Commission consent order with a woven fabric manufacturer that labeled its product ‘flushable’ even though it was not capable of breaking down in the system,” Kaiser said. “The consent decree was finalized in November 2015, marking a significant achievement in the industry’s effort to hold manufacturing companies accountable for accurate product labels.”
DC Water is not the only utility fighting the good fight. Many around the country are taking a stand against labels and several litigation efforts are underway. A recent lawsuit in Minnesota targeted four of the largest flushables manufacturers.
The National Association of Clean Water Administrators (NACWA), a wastewater facility trade association, has launched a “Toilets Are Not Trashcans” campaign to educate stakeholders and protect facilities. It has been working on establishing flush guidelines that would properly define and restrict use of the term “flushable,” and The Dr. Oz Show brought a NACWA director in studio on an episode dedicated to the issue.
Almost all utilities are contributing through memberships to trade associations that are working to hold manufacturers accountable for labeling and production. But there are ways to have a more direct impact.
“Sharing information on social media or petitioning the manufacturing companies are opportunities to voice concerns about the negative impacts of the improper disposal recommendations for these products,” Kaiser said. “Supporting NACWA’s campaign and similar campaigns of utilities around the country will continue to bolster the sector’s efforts to protect municipal assets, public health, and the environment.”
And these efforts have been making a difference. While sewer systems are still very much plagued by the ratty, gooey horrors that result when inappropriately flushed substances band together, the Federal Trade Commission’s consent decree is a good start. It established that to affix the term flushable to a product, the manufacturer must scientifically prove that it “disperses in a sufficiently short amount of time after flushing to avoid clogging, or other operational problems.”
It will take some time for this consent decree, essentially a legal settlement between two parties without the admission of guilt, to make a larger policy impact. Utilities are hoping that sooner rather than later, the term “flushable” will mean something.
 The British, in their colloquial way, refer to these globules as “fatbergs,” presumably because cooking fat that makes its way down the drain is their key binding substance and, just a guess here, because the resulting formation resembles an iceberg. One so-called fatberg discovered two years ago was so voluminous that it nearly clogged a London sewer and took six weeks to remove.