To Flush or Not to Flush? That is the Question


“To Flush or Not to Flush” seems to be a question that many consumers either cannot answer correctly, or do not care to ask.  Wastewater utilities are frustrated by the amount of materials – such as paper towels, baby wipes, cleaning wipes, wipes labeled “flushable”, and feminine hygiene products – that are causing expensive problems in their collection systems and treatment plants.  Of these products, only the “flushable” wipes are designed and marketed to be flushed. 

While utilities think that it would be best for their customers to only flush the 3 Ps (pee, poop, and toilet paper), there is some segment of the population that wants to wipe their butts with something moist.  The Dr. Oz recommendation (part 1part 2) to stop using wipes and start using toilet paper moistened with water is good, and I know from toilet training experience with my four kids that this really does work! 

However, people seem to like the convenience of a pre-moistened wipe, and the wipes industry has tapped into this demand.  If we were to get a law passed to forbid wipes from being called “flushable,” people would simply use and flush baby wipes instead (and those things are indestructible squares of plastic that utilities do not want in their systems!).  Fortunately, it may be possible in the future to have a wipe that can be safely flushed.  Haso has produced a wipe that breaks apart in water in less than 15 seconds, and while this “miracle wipe” is not yet available to consumers, it demonstrates the potential for truly flushable wipes.

To reduce the problems that wastewater systems are experiencing, the question of what to flush or not to flush needs to be clearly answered.  To do this, several things need to happen:

  • Wipes that are labeled “flushable” need to meet standards that will be protective of sewer systems;
  • Products that are not designed to be flushed, but might end up in the toilet, should have a prominent “do not flush” logo on the packaging; and
  • Consumer education needs to occur to help people understand whether to flush or not flush products.

Last year, representatives from NACWA, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the American Public Works Association (APWA), and INDA (the association of the nonwoven fabrics industry) participated in a Technical Workgroup to discuss issues related to flushability of wipes, and the associations determined a path forward to accomplish the three items above.

The path forward began yesterday, when the associations – joined by the Canadian Water & Wastewater Association (CWWA) – met to begin drafting new flushability guidelines for wipes.  The goal is to develop guidelines that can be supported by both wastewater utilities and the wipes industry, ensuring that wipes labeled “flushable” will actually be safe for sewer systems. 

The associations will also work together on a product stewardship initiative that will focus on proper labeling of non-flushable products and consumer education about what can and cannot be flushed.  This initiative will begin later this spring. 

It will take some time for both of these projects to develop and for results to be seen, but it is exciting to see the interest that the wipes industry is taking in the issue.  The Technical Workgroup last year and the flushability guidelines meeting yesterday are proving that the wipes and wastewater industries can cooperate and collaborate to solve the flushability question. 

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