Flushable Wipes… not so Flushable
Back in the winter edition of 2012, Plumbing Connection made a lot of noise in the area, but unfortunately, our attempts to voice some serious concerns, fell largely on deaf ears. We may sound like a broken record at this stage; however, when it comes to the area of ‘flushable wipes’, it seems nothing has changed. Manufacturers still label these products as flushable and consumers continue to purchase them unawares of the underlying issues. Manufacturers increase their bottom lines, consumers spend more money and everyone is happy… right? Wrong.
What about the clogged pipes and the costs associated with unblocking them? You can bet the manufacturers aren’t going to claim responsibility or fork out the money to cover those bills. No doubt they’ll claim they are not responsible for human behaviour.
The biggest problem is a lack of clear understanding and definition of the term ‘flushable’ when it comes to consumer goods. There are no Australian standards that focus on the area of flushable wipes, making it an impossible market to regulate. The problem is further exacerbated due to lower flush rates being adopted across the country.
Wipes are certainly able to be flushed, but so are myriad other things that should not be sent down the toilet – it isn’t a rubbish bin after all. Where the real problem lies is what happens once the wipes are out of sight and in the sewerage system. Standard toilet tissue has been proven to disintegrate within a matter of seconds, while wipes do not. In fact, some independent tests have seen them remain completely intact after 30 minutes or more in water.
As suggested in our previous article, this loosely used term is merely a ‘feel good’ tag employed to deter the public from being concerned about the product or the way it is disposed.
Why the fuss?
Manufacturers are developing creative marketing strategies to increase consumer awareness surrounding flushable wipes and the ability to replace, or at least be used in conjunction with regular dry toilet paper.
A recent marketing exercise conducted in both Sydney and Melbourne by Kleenex aimed to align the company’s wipes with comfort and luxury. But there is nothing luxurious about clogged pipes. And after repeated calls in the past by Plumbing Connection to the manufacturer for scientific evidence to back up claims of the wipes breaking down in sewerage systems and septic tanks, we were merely brushed aside.
As the market for these goods is estimated to increase to nearly $US13 billion globally, one must wonder when the necessary industry policies addressing the global concerns of flushable wipes, will come into place.
A global issue
The problem received global attention in 2013 when London sewer officials reported removing a 15-ton ‘bus-sized lump’ of wrongly flushed grease and wet wipes, which received the name ‘fatberg’. It took more than three weeks for Thames Water Utilities Ltd. to break it up.
According to Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies in Washington, wipes have been reported to be around a third of the debris choking screens and pumps in U.S. treatment plants, and about 30% were sold as flushable.
In February 2014, a New York doctor filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the makers of ‘flushable’ wipes after experiencing what he claims to be major plumbing and clogging issues in his home.
The lawsuit by Dr. Joseph Kurtz, resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., cites Kimberly-Clark and Costco Wholesale corporations and seeks damages of at least $5 million. “The defendants should have known that their representations regarding flushable wipes were false and misleading,” the complaint states.
The suit represents 100 people and claims that consumers around the country have suffered through clogged pipes, flooding, jammed sewers and problems with septic tanks due to the use of flushable wipes. The lawsuit is one of a long list of complaints against the manufacturers of flushable wipes in recent years.
Over the past several years, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection has spent over $18 million to have these wipes removed by hand from the sewer system, according to Deputy Commissioner Vincent Sapienza.
When the department looked at the sales of flushable wipes, Sapienza said that there was almost a direct correlation between an increase in product sales and an increase in clogs within its sewage treatment facilities.
With this in mind and if sales continue to grow here, as they have in northern American and across Europe, it’s only a matter of time before significant impacts on wastewater treatment processes occur in Australia. So why isn’t the local industry being proactive in this area?
Canada is part of an international initiative to develop an industry-wide standard on flushable wipes.
Barry Orr, a waste-water expert from London, Ont. and spokesperson for the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG), is helping a work group with the International Standards Organisation (ISO) in Geneva to develop the standard.
A proposal was submitted in January 2014 and approved by a vote in the ISO in May, with support from across the globe. Orr has a focus to develop tests that will determine the flushability of a number of products that manufacturers claim are safe for septic and sewer systems.
The suppliers of nonwoven materials and products, represented by INDA and EDANA the Associations representing the vast majority of nonwovens supplied to the market today across North America and EMEA are committed to communicating to consumers when the toilet is an appropriate disposal route for finished products in the marketplace. Flushability has been an area of focus for INDA in North America and EDANA in Europe since 2004.
INDA released the third edition of the “Guidelines Document for Assessing the Flushability of Nonwoven Disposable Products” in June 2013.
Since the first edition, the Guidance Document has been a living document, and we continually gather feedback from stakeholders across the nonwovens and wastewater industries to use in reviews and updates of the Guidelines. INDA/EDANA will commence a review of the third edition no later than December 31, 2015.
We recognise that the appeal of these products comes from the advantages they offer in effectiveness, cleanliness, convenience and ease of use. However, how and where they are used can encourage flushing as the means for disposal which, in certain cases, is not the correct route.
Together, our aim is to reduce the amount of non-flushable material in the wastewater stream. Therefore, it is important that even products which are likely to be flushed (even though not designed to be), and products which do not meet our Guidelines are labelled “Do Not Flush”. This is why we developed a voluntary Code of Practice which includes a “Do Not Flush” logo for companies to use on product packaging.
The wheels have been put in motion overseas, but what about in our own backyard where the problems are already starting to show up?
It’s time to take a stand
This is a mounting problem that requires a proactive approach from both the plumbing industry and water services industries. If action is not taken now and manufacturers are continually able to label these products as ‘flushable’ without scientific evidence (to prove they are sewerage friendly) or standards to regulate them, household and public drainage systems could be faced with some serious blockage issues later on. Who will the finger be pointed at then?
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