Time to flush DC's ban on flushable wipes

Original Source: Washington Examiner

As Congress and the new administration focus on infrastructure, we have our own infrastructure challenges in Washington, D.C., none more than with our storm and sanitary sewer systems. Technological innovations are among the sources of those challenges, and innovation will be key to effective response.

Sewer systems are exposed to constant abuse. During a major storm in Washington, water flow can rise in minutes from a trickle to a 12-foot-high billion-gallons-an-hour cascade. Few realize how much these floods sweep through: entire car engines, animal carcasses, large slabs of concrete.

Without constant attention, the need for Combined Sewer Overflow tunnels along with sewer system upgrades and repair can overwhelm the city's hardworking, but thinly stretched, staff. And as DC Water's general manager George Hawkins wrote three years ago, "[D]eferred maintenance in the past is haunting us today, even if we are upgrading and rebuilding as fast as we can."

Our facilities for disposing of human waste need special attention. Part of Washington's 600-mile sanitary sewer system dates back to 1810. Construction materials include, (and this is the city government's own list), "brick and concrete, vitrified clay, reinforced concrete, ductile iron, plastic, steel, brick, cast iron, cast in place concrete, and even fiberglass." In 2009, after five years of study, DC Water's Sewer System Facilities Plan reported that 88 percent of our sanitary sewers had defects.

The CSO tunnels, sewer relining, and a new sewer pumping station currently under construction are just part of the system upgrade. DC Water has become a national leader in rapid response and communication with customers when systems are stressed. The ability of Hawkins and his staff to deploy quickly during a big weather event and their use of special screens to keep pumps free of the clutter that comes through may appear low tech to some, but actually reflect ingenuity and innovation.

By themselves, these improvements will not overcome the impact of a technological innovation that many DC Water customers rely on but too many abuse.

In recent decades, numerous plastic-infused cleaning wipes have come to market. Baby wipes are the best known. All carry "do not flush" warning labels. When flushed down toilets (despite the warning, a frequent occurrence), they sometimes combine into huge agglomerations of fats, oil and grease, the notorious Fatbergs (as our friends in London dub them) that are triggering sewer system backups around the world. For Washington, clearing Fatbergs inflates operating costs at pumping stations and the main Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In response, the city council voted in December to prohibit the kinds of personal-cleaning wipes that are supposed to be flushable from being labeled as flushable. These wipes do not contain plastic and are designed to come apart in discharge pipes, much like toilet paper. Mayor Bowser signed the bill earlier this month.

The practical result will be a ban on the local sale of a class of innovative products found in 20 percent of households nationally and used by nursing homes to care for elderly patients.

The problem is that, despite DC Water's communications, many of the banned products' users will be sure to turn to non-flushables and flush them anyway, aggravating the Fatberg problem. Last year, a New York City-commissioned study found that only two percent of the contents of Fatbergs came from flushable wipes, most of that barely identifiable. Plastic-containing wipes were more that 30 percent and largely intact.

I agree with the wastewater community that we need standards to assure that all wipe products are safe for our systems. But on Dec. 7th, the day after the city council vote, a Federal District Court in New York City ruled that the Federal Trade Commission had established an "acceptable national standard" for the product, making state and local standards "not acceptable."

The city council should provide a mechanism for the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs and DC Water to approve these products without having to expend valuable and extremely scarce resources.

Instead of burdening those agencies, it would be better to call for manufacturer self-certification backed by evidence that the product breaks apart in accordance with the FTC standard. The self-certification and data would be presented to the two agencies for approval.

The city council is the first in the country to prohibit a promising innovation such as cleaning wipes. A wise city council would modify the law to avoid placing additional burdens on already thinly-stretched agencies while accommodating technological innovation.