On April Fools – The Wipes Issue is No Joke

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The media can’t seem to get enough of wipes stories, which is a good thing for utilities since every news story draws attention to the problem and helps to educate people not to flush wipes.  Several major stories appeared about the wipes problem in the month of March.  The New York Times published an article on March 13 – Wet Wipes Box Says Flush. New York’s Sewer System Says Don’t – focusing on the problems caused by wipes for wastewater utilities. The article was followed by an editor’s blog on March 16 reiterating the “don’t flush wipes” message.  On March 26, MSNBC broadcast a story called “Should you flush that wipe?” on All In With Chris Hayes.   Both The New York Times and MSNBC visited a treatment plant of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, a NACWA member.  NPR also had a story on March 24, “Flushable Wipes Wiping Out Sewer Systems,” which discussed the problems of wipes and FOG (fats, oils, and greases) in London’s sewers. 

As we know, flushable wipes aren’t the only type of wipes causing problems for our sewer systems and treatment plants.  Baby wipes, cleaning wipes, and cosmetic wipes are even worse, since they were not designed to be flushed at all and they are super strong.  And hardly any of these types of wipes have clear, noticeable “do not flush” instructions.  Costco baby wipes are one of the exceptions, since they have a clear “do not flush” logo on the top of every box and every wipes package:

 wipes box

wipes box

If we want to reduce the problems caused by wipes for our utilities, two things must happen:

  1. Wipes that are called “flushable” must break up easily and quickly after flushing, and
  2. Consumers must understand that other types wipes should never be flushed. 

NACWA is working on both of these, along with the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the American Public Works Association (APWA), the Canadian Water & Wastewater Association (CWWA), and INDA (the trade association of the nonwoven fabrics industry).  In January, these associations began working together on updated flushability guidelines.  The goal is to develop flushability guidelines that both the wastewater and wipes industries agree will protect sewer systems.  The guidelines are scheduled to be published by June 2016. 

The associations also began their Product Stewardship Initiative on wipes with a meeting last week, to explore and implement ways for the wipes industry to take greater responsibility for the downstream impacts of its products by improving product labeling and consumer education.  A roadmap for action based on the meeting discussions will be developed, and then the associations will decide on the timing for next steps.

How long will it take for results to be seen from these projects, and how well will they work? It’s hard to say, especially since right now, all actions by the industry will be done on voluntarily.  However, all parties involved in both projects seem willing and eager to tackle this problem, and we have seen successful voluntary actions taken by many of these same companies on problems such as plastic microbeads.  With the media’s continued interest in the problem, the pressure will be on the wipes industry to make their voluntary successful. 

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