At the World of Wipes Conference last week, industry insiders provided an update on efforts to combat threats posed to the wipes industry due to their supposed role in clogging sewage systems. INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics, has been involved in these efforts for more than a decade, and is currently working with the wastewater industry to develop a fourth edition of flushability assessment guidelines which include testing requirements and labeling protocols—not only for flushable items but for all wipes.
In fact, it is the 93% of wipes tonnage that is not marketed as flushable that INDA president Dave Rousse is most concerned about. “We are working with these manufacturers, converters and brand owners because there are increased risks if they don’t label their products under our Code of Practice,” he says. “The entire wipes industry needs to pay attention to this.”
Of the 15 lawsuits that involve flushable wipes and their alleged impact on sewer systems in the U.S., two have already been settled without money changing hands. This is because there is no proof that flushable wipes—ones that have passed the flushability guidelines put forth by INDA—are contributing to these problems. This cannot be said for wipes that have not passed the testing requirements, however. It is these wipes, combined with other items like facial tissue and paper towel, that should not be flushed but are being found in sewer clogs.
“The risk here is that lawyers might start paying attention to improperly labeled non-flushable wipes and their role in sewer problems and we would start seeing lawsuits involving them,” Rousse adds.
At WOW, he met with many wipes makers and brand owners to encourage them to comply with the industry Code of Practice, which has been a part of the flushability guidelines since 2008. These include baby wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, and disinfectant wipes, all of which are found in bathrooms and are likely to be flushed. He is also working with retailers to encourage them to mandate compliance in products sold at their stores.
Rousse is hopeful these efforts will increase compliance with these labeling requirements, which he estimates is now at about 70%—much better than a few years ago but still woefully short. “When manufacturers are not involved in the marketing of flushable wipes, they pay less attention (to our efforts) than they should.”
He would also like to see a binary labeling practice where non-flushable wipes are marked with a uniform “Do Not Flush” symbol and flushable wipes sport a “Certified Flush-Friendly” symbol.
From the wastewater industry’s perspective, understanding why the current labeling efforts are not doing their job is a top priority in its work with INDA.
“The labels are not doing their job and they are not working as well as they should because they are often not being placed in the right area,” ClaudioTernieden, director of government affairs, Water Environment Federation (WEF) explains. This concern was discussed the April meeting of Wastewater representatives and INDA members to review the current Code of Practice and develop improvements, now under consideration.
“Wipes definitely are contributing to the problems in our infrastructure. It is true that they are not all marketed as “flushable” but there are definitely wipes that are not dispersing and causing problems,” adds Terneiden. “From the wastewater industry’s perspective, the main goal is to see that any wipe flushed down the toilet are engineered to disperse or decompose before they hit the sewer system.”
To help keep these wipes out of the toilet, the draft updated Code of Practice proposes that all baby wipes—whether they pass the flushability test or not—not be marketed as “Flushable” and carry the “Do Not Flush” symbol on the front of the package. This proposal intends to reduce consumer confusion about what to flush and to keep the toilet from becoming a trash can, explains Rousse.
“Baby wipes are the biggest source of confusion,” he says. “They are the biggest segment of the premoistened wipes sector and they are causing a lot of concern since it is known that they will come in contact with wastes from a baby, some assume they can be used on adults. With no message to the contrary facing the consumer, confusion exists and baby wipes are often misused as moist toilet tissue. The data shows this is occurring and we believe that our industry needs to recognize this problem and take responsible action to address this consumer confusion.”
Even though they are not typically not marketed as flushable, baby wipes are under the most scrutiny because consumer confusion of usage and disposal. According to informal survey data, as many as 30% of baby wipes users admit to occasionally flushing baby wipes and 10% flush them regularly. Even this small percentage being flushed could have an impact.
“Baby wipes are the largest single category of moist wipes so there is a lot of tonnage there,” Rousse adds. “Marketing them as “Flushable” and redirecting the disposable of them from the waste basket to the toilet would be compounding the problems because of their pure mass, even if the volume lost its wet strength quickly.”
Real World Tests
While labeling efforts will help alleviate some sewage problems, the wastewater industry continues to have concerns over the testing criteria in place under the third edition of the guidelines, which was adopted about 18 months ago. Ternieden says that the conditions put forth in the slosh box and municipal test pump (MPT) tests do not mimic real world conditions, meaning that a wipe could disperse under these lab type conditions but not in an actual sewer system.
“It has been our position that the tests contained in the GD3 are not effective—at least not the slosh box or the municipal test pump (MTP) are not effective,” he says. “The bottom line of our argument is that the GD4 tests need to reinvent the real circumstances of the sewer system. The tests right now are lab tests and they way they are implemented they do not represent how the wipes behave in the sewer system themselves.”
For that purpose, the WEF’s work with INDA to reevaluate testing methods is a top priority for the GD4. This joint group has been working on GD4 for 18 months and expect to have agreement by year end. For the slosh box test, the joint group is in discussions on moving significantly to a procedure that more closely emulates the condition in the sewers, a challenge because all sewers are designed and operate differently, while an upgraded—and more effective—version of the MPT test is currently under review.
“Lower energy and lower water volumes seem to be more similar to many similar sewers so we are moving in that direction,” he says. “I think we can get there.”