Wastewater experts skeptical of flushable wipes

Wastewater experts skeptical of flushable wipes

By Paul F. P. Pogue

Barb Harnedy used flushable moist wipes to toilet-train her grandchildren. She never gave them much thought until her toilet clogged and her plumber discovered dozens of the wipes bunched up in the outdoor trap of her Indianapolis home. "When he unscrewed the sewer cap, the wipes burst out of there," she says.

Acme Plumbing & Drain Cleaning manager Rick Rowlen, whose company fixed Harnedy's drain, says he sees such clogs at least weekly. "It doesn't matter what they say on the label, there's no such thing as a flushable wipe," he says. "They don't break down like toilet paper."

Harnedy is among the 31 percent of Angie's List members who use flushable products and say they've caused toilet issues. Jay and Pat Azriel, of York, Pa., also used flushable wipes when toilet-training their children and have a different opinion. "Once kids are out of diapers, it's a lot easier to help them wipe themselves with something you can just flush away," Jay says.

Flushable products have become more popular in recent years. Sales of flushable wipes, which dominate the market, have tripled since 2001. But wastewater experts remain skeptical of the trend. "The jury's still out as to whether these [flushable products] are safe for wastewater treatment," says Amit Pramanik, senior wastewater program director for the Water Environment Research Foundation. Some municipalities have asked citizens not to flush anything but toilet paper and waste. Raleigh, N.C., has made it illegal to do so. Marti Gibson, Raleigh environmental coordinator, says the ban cut their overflow rate to half the national average. "Nothing biodegrades in the 19 days it takes to go through the sewer system," she says. "They get caught in the pumps and screens and cause backups."

The term "flushable" is not governed by federal regulations, so it can mean anything from small wipes that will simply make it down the toilet to materials that actually disintegrate in water like toilet paper.

In response to these concerns, two major industry organizations, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry and the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association, collaborated with industry stakeholders to formulate flushable product guidelines, which were released in June. Under the criteria, products must clear toilets and pipe systems, be compatible with wastewater treatment systems and become unrecognizable in water in a reasonable period of time. The guidelines will apply to a wide variety of flushables, including gDiapers. Founder Jason Graham-Nye says flushing diapers makes perfect sense: "This is human waste. These things don't belong in a landfill." He adds that gDiapers have passed numerous independent flushability tests and will soon follow the industry's new guidelines.

However, wastewater treatment authorities in Vancouver, Wash., conducted their own tests and remain concerned that gDiapers could interfere with sewer systems. "The toilet is not magic," says city engineer Doug Wise. "When you flush anything down, it goes away but doesn't disappear."

Graham-Nye says gDiapers is working to settle the city's worries. "The beauty of these guidelines is that they're going to address these concerns," he says.

Wise isn't so sure. "It really depends on the material and whether it degrades," he says. "We need to look at it on a product-specific basis."

Steve Williams, senior engineering specialist with NSF International, which piloted the testing, expects flushable manufacturers to quickly pick up the guidelines, even though they're not mandatory. "It's a tool to give the industry some backing for the claims they make," Williams says. Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble, two of the biggest wipes companies, say they've already committed to them.

"We participated in the development of these guidelines," Procter & Gamble spokesperson April Guillerme says. "They are the same criteria we've applied to flushable products for years."

Williams says the flushables movement won't swirl away anytime soon. "It's part of a general trend in society towards convenience and saving time," he says. "With flushable products, it's a lot nicer to be able to pull that toilet lever and get rid of something."

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