Wipe Times Op-Ed

By Dave Rousse

The D.C. Council wants to police your bathroom. Will you let it?

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council will vote on the Nonwoven Disposable Products Labeling Act of 2016, a bill that claims to help alleviate clogs in the DC Water waste stream. But it won’t. This legislation unfairly targets Flushable Wipes, used by many D.C. residents, which are specifically designed to break down when flushed and ultimately degrade.

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Bill supporters maintain that the bill would only change required labeling on wipes, with those to be marketed as “Flushable” needing to pass yet-to-be-determined testing. In fact and in practice, it would effectively ban the sale of Flushable Wipes in the District because the testing being considered would be impossible for US manufacturers to meet.

INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, knows there is a problem of too many wipes entering the sewer pipes of American cities. But it’s not being caused by Flushable Wipes, which are highly engineered products made of degradable cellulose fibers; they sink in tanks, and break down when flushed.

The problem is caused by consumers flushing all sorts of things they should not flush: Baby wipes, paper towels, feminine hygiene products and so forth. This is well-documented.

Recently, New York City officials commissioned a third-party to conduct a forensic analysis of what is in New York’s water pipes. As expected, non-flushable products such as baby wipes, paper towels, cosmetic wipes and feminine hygiene products made up 98 percent of the city’s waste flow. Flushable wipes made up only 2 percent, and even those were in pieces, not whole.

The industry has asked the D.C. Council and DC Water to perform a similar study on our pipes, to determine if flushable wipes really are the problem before passing legislation that could end up being misguided. It is vital that lawmakers have the data they need for a proper diagnosis of a problem before they pass a bill that will allow the city government to intrude into D.C. residents’ personal hygiene practices by telling them what products they can use in the privacy of their bathrooms.

But the D.C. Council and D.C. Water have refused to do such a study. Possibly because they are aware of the New York study’s result: they are attacking the wrong products.

Frankly, it’s a puzzle why the bill’s author, Councilmember Cheh (Ward 3), is trying to railroad this legislation through Council. It’s a greater puzzle why she refuses to meet with concerned members of the wipes industry – including one who is her own constituent.

The truth of this legislation is that it is unenforceable. Who is going to police your bathroom? If District residents want flushable wipes, won’t they simply buy them in Maryland and Virginia? Or on-line?

Councilmember Cheh admitted as much in a recent markup session: “I recognize enforcement challenges exist here,” she said.

When pressed by fellow Councilmembers, Cheh suggested – seemingly making it up on the spot -- an “audit” system where DC officials would buy flushable wipes and test them, even though no such process or authority exists.

Aside from reducing consumer choice, INDA fears this law will create unintended harm. If District residents cannot buy Flushable Wipes they want, that are designed for their purpose and to cause no harm when flushed, they will likely substitute baby wipes or other non-flushable wipes that we know for sure will clog pipes, snarl pumps and cause expensive problems when flushed.

As it does around the country, INDA much prefers to work collaboratively with D.C. officials to educate consumers on what can and cannot be flushed. That – and an examination of what’s actually in D.C.’s water pipes – would be more sensible first steps toward addressing the clogging problem than an immediate jump to misguided legislation.

So District residents are about to get slapped with the worst kind of legislation: A bad bill devoid of facts being rushed into law with severe unintended consequences. We ask Council Chairman Mendelson to block this misguided legislation and we urge District consumers to contact their Councilmembers and tell them to stay out of their bathrooms and oppose this bill.

Rousse is the president of INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.