“Flushable” Wipes, Clogging Pipes

“Young mother changing diapers on her newborn
She grabs a moist towellete to cleanse his skin
With baby changed she walks up to the toilet
The towelette in her hand she tosses in
She doesn’t know the baby wipe’s a tough one
And it can make a clog in sewer pipes
Don’t flush the baby
Don’t flush the baby
Don’t flush the little baby wipes…”

Could this song, Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes) by Steve Anderson, Water Resources Analyst at Clean Water Services in Hillsboro, Oregon, become a hit? Many wastewater utilities probably wish that the song would be played on radio stations in their cities, with their customers soon singing along and remembering the lyrics as they consider what they should flush—or not flush—down their toilets.

While most baby wipes are labeled as not flushable —albeit in tiny print on the backs of the packages—the marketing and use of “flushable” wipes has expanded in recent years.  There are no requirements that a product must meet to be labeled flushable, and products labeled as flushable may still cause problems in the sewer system because they do not disperse nearly as rapidly as toilet paper.

Take a look at this clogged pump in the Clean Water Services system:


And this bar screen at a treatment plant:


And this huge pile of non-dispersible products removed from the sewer system:

These problems, of course, are caused by products other than flushable wipes, too. Although many people know that paper towels and cotton swabs should not be flushed down the toilet, many others still flush them. Did you know, though, that facial tissues should also not be flushed? Tissues are designed to not fall apart in your hand when you are blowing your nose, and they don’t fall apart in water so easily either, as shown in this video produced by the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the City of Spokane Department of Wastewater Management.

The problem with flushable wipes (other than their lack of dispersibility) is that they confuse the message that utilities are trying to deliver that only toilet paper and human waste should be flushed. Public education is critical to reducing this problem, and many utilities have distributed posters and flyers to their customers. This August 7 story on KOIN TV featured Frank Dick, Industrial Pretreatment Coordinator for the City of Vancouver, clearly showing the problems caused by flushable wipes.

Cooperation from product manufacturers to clearly label products as not flushable, however, would help tremendously in educating the public. Many products are not meant to be flushed and are not labeled as flushable, but they still end up in the sewer system. The fine print on many non-flushable products, such as these baby wipes, is not sufficient:

Instead, a simple “no-flush” logo needs to be displayed prominently on the top or front of the packaging. This logo has been developed by the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) for voluntary use. If it is printed large enough and in the right location on packaging, it would certainly do the trick.

Last month, Pacific Northwest utility representatives from NACWA, the American Public Works Association (APWA), and WEF met with representatives from Costco and their manufacturers of flushable wipes to discuss the issues involved with these products and potential solutions. Costco agreed that adding the no-flush logo to products that are not marketed as flushable would be a possibility.

NACWA, APWA, and WEF would like to continue these discussions with Costco and with other manufacturers and retailers of non-dispersible products. In addition, the WEF Collection Systems Committee has also been working with INDA to revise its voluntary Flushability Guidance Document to more accurately reflect actual dispersibility in the sewer system. Are you interested in joining in these efforts? If so, please contact me at cfinley@nacwa.org.

For more information, please see NACWA’s new webpage  with resources—including videos, public education materials, reports, and conference presentations—about flushable wipes and other non-dispersible products.


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9 Responses to “Flushable” Wipes, Clogging Pipes

  1. Thomas Horn says:

    At my last authority we had a lot of problems with "flushable" wipes, both from day cares and retirement facilities.  One pumping station constantly had to be worked on.  We would get some cooperation when we talked to the facility managers but, it did not last.  One of staff had many conversations with manufacturers.  They need to indicate that these are only flushable as far as toilets are concerned but, not as far as our pumps are concerned.

  2. ingrid hellebrand says:

    Thank you NACWA for creating a resource page. Let's hope this generates a lot of hits and builds momentum for a universal "NO FLUSH" label and instructions on all products that do not meet the INDA/EDANA Flushability Guidelines. But what we really need to work on it creating new guidelines for DISPERSIBILITY.
    And… Clear code of pratice – only PEE, POO, and TOILET PAPER – should be flushed!

  3. Raj Bhattarai says:

    Thank you so much for this blog. Let's hope this will spur campaigns for public awareness of this problem. Don't flush those wipes!

  4. Raymond Westbrook says:

    I read an article in the Jan 21 2013 Times Herald Record  of Middletown NY written by jsullivan@th-record.com that talked about raw sewage erupting from a manhole near a pump station serving a 600 plus unit condominium complex. As a polio surviver I have been interested in sewage overflows where e-coli might be found.

    My sister-inlaw is visiting from W.Virginia .I showed her the article and she said she has had problems with her daughter and her 2 children throwing the wipes down the toilet. They have had to have their septic system pumped twice and the feed line snaked to clean the wipes out that clooed her system

  5. Pingback: “Flushable” Wipes: Clogging Fewer Pipes? | NACWA

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  7. Charlie says:

    Wipes have kept me very busy the last few years.

    One customer insisted that they broke apart.

    I responded that if they broke apart, then we would not buy them !

  8. Pingback: The Proof is in the Flushing | NACWA

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