The FTC Flunks “Flushable” Wipes

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced on Monday that it finalized a consent order with Nice-Pak Products, Inc. requiring it to stop advertising its wipes as “flushable” unless it can substantiate the claim.  This consent order is the first action by a government agencies to deal with the flushability issue, and it is a huge step in the right direction for ensuring that any wipe labeled “flushable” should not cause problems for wastewater utilities.  NACWA supported this consent agreement, and wastewater utilities and other utility associations also supported the agreement in comments to the FTC.

Countless wastewater utilities across the country – across the world, actually – have experienced problems with wipes that are flushed into their systems.  The wipe that resulted in this FTC action was clearly not flushable and should never have been called flushable.  Take a look at the test of this wipe conducted at Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority (PARSA) in Middlesex, New Jersey, in the “PARSA Potty.”  After 100 flushes through the PARSA Potty, the wipe had still not broken down.  There’s no way this wipe would break down in the slow-flowing conditions of most wastewater collection systems.  This particular type of wipe is no longer on the market, and although some new “flushable” wipes appear to perform very well, the current industry guidelines for determining flushability are inadequate.

NACWA is working with other wastewater associations and the wipes industry to develop new flushability guidelines for wipes, to ensure that any wipe called “flushable” will be safe for sewer systems.  This consent order assists in this work by providing a clear statement about what must be considered for a wipe to be called flushable.  To make a claim of flushability, there must be “competent and reliable scientific evidence . . . to substantiate that the representation is true.” The FTC explains that “’competent and reliable evidence’ means tests, analyses, research, studies, or other evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant area” which must at least (emphasis added):

“A. Demonstrate that the Covered Product disperses in a sufficiently short amount of time after flushing to avoid clogging, or other operational problems in, household and municipal sewage lines, septic systems, and other standard wastewater equipment; and

“B. Substantially replicate the physical conditions of the environment in which the Covered Product is claimed, directly or indirectly, expressly or by implication to be properly disposed of; or if no specific environment is claimed, then in all environments in which the product will likely be disposed of.”

So basically, the wipe needs to break apart (disperse) in a short amount of time after flushing in conditions that represent a real sewer system.  The group working on the new flushability guidelines is working on exactly how to define and test “disperses,” “short amount of time,” and the “physical conditions of the environment.” It’s tricky, since all collection systems and wastewater treatment facilities are different, and things like tree roots and FOG (fats, oils, and greases) can get into even the best-maintained sewer systems, adding even more complications.

Class action lawsuits filed by consumers against manufacturers of flushable wipes have been stayed by the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York while the FTC works on the flushability issue.   If the FTC continues with the good work that it did in this consent order with Nice-Pak, and if other manufacturers take notice and improve their products, then flushable wipes may someday all be truly flushable.  Will this solve the problems utilities are having? Unfortunately, no, since too many people are flushing baby wipes and other types of wipes that are super strong and not designed to break down at all in a sewer system.  This problem can only be solved with better product labeling and consumer education.  NACWA is working with other wastewater associations and the wipes industry on this aspect of the wipes problem, too, and we’ll have more on that as it develops.  In the meantime, it’s best to remember to only flush the 3 Ps: pee, poop, and toilet paper!

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