By Dave Rousse
Paper towels. Baby wipes. Even dental floss. These products are just a very small sample of the items clogging New York City’s sewer system. There’s a problem in New York City’s wastewater treatment plants, and—pardon the pun—it stinks.
So, bravo to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection for wanting to do something about it.
But here’s the catch: DEP is misdiagnosing the problem—badly.
As representatives of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (we call ourselves INDA), we’re ready to help. If only the city will let us.
DEP is proposing a bill in the City Council that would actually make the problem worse. The agency wants to regulate “flushable wipes”—legislatively relabeling them in a way that could force them entirely off the shelves in New York City. These products are called “flushable” for a reason: They are engineered to break up once they are sent down the toilet.
The industry has taken an aggressive approach to ensure that flushables don’t gum up the works. These moist toilet tissues (as some people call them) undergo seven rigid tests to ensure our wipes safely break up once down the pipes.
We’re not denying there’s a problem with items getting stuck in the city's sewage treatment equipment. But ask the experts (not just us, but also wastewater associations) and they’ll tell you it’s the cleaning and hard-surface wipes, feminine hygiene products, washcloths, even golf balls clogging the system. Not flushables.
It’s basic science. Flushable wipes are made with cellulosic fibers. Non-flushable wipes are made with plastic.
Take this challenge at home: Try to pull apart a baby wipe and then a flushable wipe. You’ll see why one breaks up after it’s flushed and why one does not.
In fact, studies continually show that more than 90% of junk collected on so-called wastewater screens are products clearly marketed as “non-flushable.”
We have shared this data from around the country with DEP and encouraged the agency to do a proper diagnosis before developing a solution. We’re eager to work with the city to collect independent data to diagnose the particular problems at hand.
But here is an undeniable truth: Blaming “good” products for problems caused by “bad” ones completely misses the mark. In fact, it makes the problem worse. Regulating flushables would lead people to turn to baby wipes or other cheaper products, never intended to be flushed. That would mean more non-flushables down New York City’s drains, and more clogging.
Better to focus on the 90-plus percent. We know the problem is better addressed by educating and encouraging people to look for proper disposal instructions, to respect the infrastructure, and to not use toilets as trash cans. To help, we have developed and put in use a “Do Not Flush” symbol on packages of non-flushable wipes.
Additionally, we have offered to partner with DEP on designing and funding an educational outreach campaign, similar to what DEP recently did in asking consumers to not dump fats, oils and grease down sinks.
Companies in our industry are cognizant of our civic responsibilities. Education campaigns work. DEP knows it, and so do we. So let us pay for one to fix the actual problem.
New York City’s sewers aren’t sexy. But they matter. Let’s work together, industry and government, to find a real solution. Otherwise, we’re flushing away a golden opportunity.
Dave Rousse is the president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA).