D.C. Council Seeks to Flush Towelettes from City Sewers

By Ryan M. McDermott - The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2016

The D.C. Council wants to take a better look at what residents are flushing down their toilets. City lawmakers are weighing a ban on so-called “flushable” wipes — those thick, moistened towelettes that promise not to clog your pipes.

The Nonwoven Disposable Products Act would prohibit the labeling of any nonwoven disposable product as flushable, sewer-safe or septic-safe unless the claim is substantiated by “competent and reliable scientific evidence.”

The bill, which was introduced by council member Mary M. Cheh in July, would allow the city’s Department of Energy and Environment to levy fines against manufacturers that don’t comply.

Supporters of the measure say that flushable wipes are not safe to send down the drain, but those in the wipe industry are calling foul on the bill. Flushable wipes are those billed as being safe for your toilet, unlike other household products like paper towels, tissues and baby wipes.

“This is a misguided bill being railroaded through the city council without a proper diagnosis of any problem,” said Dave Rousse, president of the Association of Nonwoven Fabric Industry, also known as INDA. “If the availability of flushable wipes on the shelves of D.C. retailers is compromised, then retailers will be harmed, and many consumers will resort to nonflushable wipes for their personal hygiene needs.”

According to the marketing firm Smithers Pira, the flushable wipes industry has racked up about $1.4 billion in sales of the nonwoven cloth products. Manufacturers include toilet paper makers Cottonelle, Scott and Charmin.

The D.C. legislation will likely see its first vote in the full council Tuesday morning. It is on the consent agenda portion of the meeting, meaning debate isn’t likely on the measure. However, the bill could be tabled for discussion, or the council could allow a first vote and make changes on the bill with industry input before a second vote.

Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said there are a number of products whose packaging indicates they are safe to flush when, in fact, those products shouldn’t pass through the District’s sewer system.

A staffer in Ms. Cheh’s office said the measure was crafted after the issue was brought up by another staffer and then was researched in consultation with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

“By mislabeling their products, manufacturers appeal to a customer’s desire for easy disposal of a cleaning product, but they are seriously damaging our infrastructure and environment,” said Ms. Cheh, who chairs the council’s environment committee.

She claimed that disposable wipes can wrap around the motors of city sewer pipes and keep sewage from flowing through the system.

“These products do not dissolve quickly in water; they can easily clog pipes, leading to backups in basements and overflows into streams,” Ms. Cheh said. “By the time these products arrive at the Blue Plains Treatment Plan, D.C. Water is forced to filter the wipes out of the system in order to prevent further damage to the plant.”

She has the support of groups like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which said at an October public hearing on the measure that utilities nationwide spend nearly $1 billion a year dealing with problems caused by clogging due to flushable wipes.

“Although many wipes packages indicate that the wipes are flushable and that they pass the current industry guidelines, the wastewater industry has shown that they do not break apart well in actual sewer systems,” said Cynthia Finley, the association’s director.

Tommy Wells, director of the city’s Department of Energy and Environment, said that D.C. Water already has initiated a campaign called “Protect Your Pipes” and that Ms. Cheh’s bill would help support that effort while authorizing the agency to levy fines.

But the Association of Nonwoven Fabric Industry, or INDA, said the bill, which was marked up last week, is being pushed through without any input from wipes manufacturers and without any specific standards for labeling. The bill does not specify what standards companies would have to meet to sell flushable wipes in the District.

“Although this legislation is based on the premise that flushable wipes are the most significant problem for wastewater treatments, forensic analysis tells a different story,” Mr. Rousse said.

INDA is trying to beat back similar bills moving through the New York state Senate and the New York City Council. The state bill has been stuck in committee since January.

The New York City measure was scheduled for a public committee hearing on Oct. 19, but that meeting was canceled. The legislation is listed as “deferred” on the City Council website.

Erik Lief of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) wrote in an October blog post that the New York City measure is a “toothless nuisance.”

“While the councilmen’s bill is intended to help unclog the sewers, their proposal to force national manufacturers to produce local, label-specific packaging just for New York — or face a sales ban — is mindless, bureaucratic nonsense,” Mr. Lief wrote.

It should be noted that ACSH has been criticized for taking donations from corporations and individuals who have ties to industries on which the nonprofit organization reports. A 2013 Mother Jones article showed that the group’s biggest donors include Chevron, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s and tobacco conglomerate Altria. ACSH has said the sources of its funding are irrelevant to its scientific investigations.

Mr. Rousse said he has asked Ms. Cheh and D.C. Water to conduct an analysis of what percentage of the waste stream includes flushable wipes, but to no avail. INDA did a similar study in New York City and found that flushable wipes make up only 2 percent of the waste stream. The vast majority of debris collected was paper towels, feminine hygiene products and various baby products.

“This latest data from New York makes it abundantly clear that the real problem is an increase in consumers flushing products that are not intended to be flushed, not flushable wipes,” Mr. Rousse said.

A ban on wipes that actually do dissolve when flushed could lead to even more clogging of the District’s water treatment system, he said.

“A scarcity of flushable wipes on the District’s shelves is more likely to cause a migration to baby wipes for toileting rather than change consumer bathroom habits, and baby wipes do not break down when flushed,” Mr. Rousse said.