The Berkshire Eagle: Dave Rousse: In defense of flushable wipes

Original Source: The Berkshire Eagle 

CARY, N.C.— In reviewing the recent Pittsfield City Council discussions on flushable wipes and The Berkshire Eagle's editorial implicating "flushable wipes" in local machinery clogs, I'd like to correct the record and help the community understand the real causes of wastewater system clogs.

There are many kinds of wipes sold, but only a few (seven percent) are toileting wipes marketed as "Flushable Wipes." The larger volume wipes, such as baby wipes, disinfecting wipes, anti-bacterial wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, make-up removal wipes, and a cast of others, none of which are marketed as being "flushable," are the real contributors to wastewater system clogs (along with paper towels, femcare items and others). But only flushable wipes are being charged with causing clogs in pumps and pipes, and as a primary contributor to the dreaded Fatberg.

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 consistently less than eight percent of what is found and, in recent studies, less than two percent 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 causing problems in their system, so conveniently attribute the causation of their problems to the flushable wipes?

This attribution could not be more wrong.

Solution, not cause

Flushable wipes are made from cellulosic materials, not the thermoplastics used in baby wipes and other cleaning wipes. Cellulose fibers 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. Flushable wipes are also engineered to do something cheaper baby wipes cannot do. That is, they travel wet in their container, yet have the strength to hold together during their intended function (but a low level of strength; even a toddler could rip them), then start to lose that strength immediately upon flushing, usually breaking into pieces during the transit in the conveyance piping, and completely disintegrating upon moving through the wastewater treatment biological processes. 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, not baby wipes, then clogs on screens and in pumps would not occur (from wipes, at least). In fact, no flushable wipe has ever been established to be the causal factor for any problem in any wastewater system. Wastewater operators in the city of Perry, Iowa learned this the hard way after hiring an attorney to sue the makers of flushable wipes, only to find that they could not establish any connection between their operating issues and the presence of flushable wipes. So they quickly settled and withdrew the case.

Furthermore, if consumer access to flushable wipes were to be compromised by misdirected legislative or regulatory efforts, 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 not float, lose strength so as not to harm pumps, and ultimately biodegrade and disintegrate. All wipes marketed as flushable wipes pass these tests and therefore are incapable of causing the harm for which they are so often, and erroneously, accused.

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, and 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