Flushable wipes bill drawing industry opposition

Original Source: Politico

A bill before the City Council that would put restrictions the use of flushable wipes is drawing opposition from industry officials who say the legislation is misdirected.

Intro. 666 is aimed at curbing the amount of wipes that end up in the city's wastewater system. Department of Environmental Protection officials say removing the wipes from filtration screens costs the city an estimated $3 million a year and also compromises the already difficult process of treating wastewater.

The bill does not restrict the sale of the wipes, which are generally used in place of, or in addition to, toilet paper and then flushed. Rather, it prohibits the sale of any wipes that are advertised as safe to flush but have not been tested and approved by the DEP.

"For us, the bill is really designed in hopes of having an agreement of principle that when a product is sold to a consumer, it has the most accurate information," Eric Landau, the DEP's deputy commissioner of public affairs and communications, said in an interview. "We are really telling the public if something is flushable, that it meets most protective environmental standard."

Treating wastewater is one of DEP's biggest challenges, so any complication is unwelcome. The city agency estimates that 50 percent of the material caught in treatment plant screens is some kind of wipe. They clog the system, back up sewers and can cause equipment malfunctions, agency officials said.

But industry leaders say the bill is targeting safe wipes while allowing other "unsafe" wipes to continue clogging the system.

"The problem with this bill is that it's going to effectively ban the flushable wipes," David Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, said in an interview. "The only thing people are going to have left to buy to perform their personal hygiene are baby wipes, and baby wipes are the worst kind for flushing."

Flushable wipes are made of cellulosic fibers, Rousse said, meaning they sink and begin to break down as soon as they hit water. Baby wipes and other cleaning wipes are plastic-based and do not break down.

The bill imposes fines for retailers that carry the wipes, Rousse said. But DEP officials said there will be a one-year phase-in from when the legislation is enacted so retailers can move the remainder of their product.

The industry is hiring lobbying and marketing firms, conducting grassroots campaigns and plans to run ads to fight the proposal. On the other side, the bill has the support of the mayor's office, Councilman Antonio Reynoso, chairman of the sanitation committee, and Councilman Costa Constantinides, chairman of the environment committee.

"No wipe product that exists today meets the 'toilet paper standard,' meaning no wipe is safely flushable into NYC's combined sewer system," Reynoso said in a statement. "The issue is labeling. The goal of this bill is to ensure that falsely labeled products are not available to consumers."

Reynoso said the Council and DEP will conduct an education campaign for consumers, teaching that all wipes should be thrown away and not flushed.

"Better yet, they should choose a more sustainable product that won't clog sewer systems or go straight to landfills," Reynoso said.

Rousse insists the city is wrongly attacking a safe product.

"The bill is going after the wrong thing," he said. "Don't attack the flushables. The flushables are the good guys."