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Letter: In defense of flushable wipes

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Dave Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, responds to the article “Regulations and testing are needed to fight flushable wipes“, which appeared in ES&E Magazine’s April 2019 issue.

Wastewater operators in North America are facing an increased amount of solid waste being inappropriately flushed down toilets, causing pipe and pump clogs in wastewater systems.

In concert, they have provided talking points to local media everywhere that the major culprit is the toileting wipe marketed as a “flushable wipe”. I’d like to correct the record and help communities understand the real causes of wastewater system clogs.

There are many kinds of wipes sold, but only a few (7%) are toileting wipes marketed as “flushable” and passing industry tests to render them so. The larger volume of wipes, such as baby wipes, disinfecting wipes, anti-bacterial wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, make-up removal wipes, and others, are the real contributors to wastewater system clogs. None of these are marketed as being “flushable”. Other contributors are paper towels, femcare items, etc.

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But, only flushable wipes are being charged with causing clogs in pumps and pipes, and are often cited as the primary contributor to the dreaded “fatberg”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Flushable wipes are actually the solution to the aforementioned clogs, not the cause. It is actually these “other” wipes, led by the soft but oh-so-strong baby wipe, that are the real cause of unwanted accumulations in wastewater systems.

Study after study of what exactly is in the accumulations of material on screens in wastewater collection systems reveals a consistent result. Nearly half of the debris are paper towels, followed in volume by baby wipes, other non-flushable wipes and feminine hygiene products. Wipes marketed as “flushable”, or at least pieces of these wipes, are less than 2% of pieces of wipes that could be identified as coming from flushable wipes, while the baby wipes are fully intact, usually stretched into ropes, and often wrapped around screens or pump impellers.

How is it that flushable wipes appear so infrequently in such studies but appear so frequently in news stories about sewer system overflows, fatbergs or pump clogs? Could it be that wastewater operators see the “flushable” feature marketed on flushable wipe packages in stores, see unidentifiable wipes being flushed and causing problems in their system, so conveniently attribute the cause of their problems to be the flushable wipes?

This attribution could not be more wrong. Flushable wipes are not made of plastics but from cellulosic fibres derived from wood or cotton and engineered to lose strength quickly once flushed and to disintegrate as they move through properly maintained plumbing and sewage systems. These fibres also sink, not float, so they reach the bottom of septic tanks and they stay at the bottom of aeration tanks, not rising and clogging the aerators. Other wipes, when inappropriately flushed, stay intact, float, and stretch into “ropes” that can impair pumps. Those are the culprits, and they should not be flushed.

Flushable wipes are actually the solution to wastewater operator concerns, not the cause. If all wipes flushed were flushable wipes there would be no problems in pipes caused by them. In fact, no flushable wipe has ever been established to be the causal factor for any problem in any wastewater system.

Furthermore, if consumer access to flushable wipes were to be compromised by misdirected legislative or regulatory efforts or the imposition of “toilet paper only” test criteria, consumers would use and flush more baby wipes, as their need for the cleanliness they seek cannot be legislated away. We should be encouraging consumers to ONLY flush wipes marketed as “flushable”.

But how, you may ask, can we be assured the flushable wipes behave the way I have described? Through science, facts and statistical analysis, our industry has developed a stringent Flushability Assessment Process consisting of seven must-pass tests to validate that every flushable wipe contains the material property characteristics and composition to pass through toilets and drain lines, sink and not float, lose strength so as not to harm pumps, and ultimately biodegrade and disintegrate. All wipes marketed as flushable pass these tests.

The key to resolving the problem is to correctly define it in the first place. Then, educate consumers to follow proper disposal instructions. The wipes industry now has a Code of Practice for labeling wipes that requires a prominent “Do Not Flush” symbol on the packages and containers of non-flushable wipes that could be used in a bathroom setting. This symbol, easily recognized and requiring no reading of English, is a visual reminder to NOT flush wipes not designed to be flushed.

Let’s give consumers the right information, not lash out at what is convenient. Flushable wipes are the solution, not the problem.

Dave Rousse is president of INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. This letter appears in ES&E Magazine’s August 2019 issue.

1 COMMENT

  1. As a wastewater operator, it is very clear Dave has never stepped foot in a wastewater treatment facility. Only toilet paper should be flushed, lots of tax payers money being wasted on emergency response to ragged pumps.

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