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"Flushable Wipes" Wreak Havoc on City Pipes

toiletA modern convenience that is increasingly popping up in bathrooms across America is causing big problems for wastewater utilities. So-called "flushable wipes" are moist towelettes that are primarily marketed to adults. Unfortunately, since they're designed to be strong, the wipes do not break down as easily as toilet paper. Consumers may not be aware of the issue because they see the wipes disappear down their drains with no problem. "The more wipes and other inappropriate items that get flushed, the greater the probability that a utility is going to have to fix a major clog, and many utilities have documented increasing costs. Wipes can also contribute to a service connection backup, which the homeowner is typically responsible for fixing. These are preventable problems that have real cost impacts." explains Scott Schaefer, AE2S Wastewater Practice Leader. Schaefer says pumps, screens, and grinders have been updated or redesigned in the past few years to better combat the issue.

In late April, the Star Tribune newspaper reported the City of Wyoming, Minnesota, filed a lawsuit against six manufacturers of flushable wipes because they are clogging the City's pipes and costing a lot of money to fix. Elsewhere in Minnesota, the Wadena Public Works Director, Dan Kovar, recently posted an open letter to residents on the City's Facebook page. His message says in part, "If this product does make it through the sanitary sewer system, which most of it does, it ends up at the Wastewater Treatment Plant and is removed by mechanical screen, and then needs to get disposed of in the landfill. These types of products along with other hygiene products are very convenient and are labeled flushable but are creating a huge problem nationwide. There is a huge cost to city residents as a result of these products in disposal fees, extra sewer cleaning and insurance claims, along with the effect they have on our landfills."

As of this spring, a group of five associations that represent the water sector and the nonwoven fabrics industry are working collaboratively on new guidelines that will influence product design and support the marketing of nonwoven products as “flushable,” with no adverse effects on wastewater systems. The association includes the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA); the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA); American Public Works Association (APWA); Water Environment Federation (WEF); and the Canadian Water & Wastewater Association (CWWA).

The group intends to complete the "Fourth Edition Guidance Document for Assessing the Flushability of Nonwoven Disposable Products" by July 2016. The associations would like to see improved product labeling, increased public education, and better consumer information regarding product flushability. Depending on the directions developed during the product stewardship process, the initiative could be expanded to include other consumer products that are commonly flushed and cause problems in wastewater systems, such as paper towels, feminine hygiene products, cotton swabs, and other materials.“Toilets are not trash cans, and reducing the amount of inappropriately flushed products will save utilities millions of dollars each year,” says Ken Kirk, NACWA Executive Director.

"The burden created by non-flushable products for public wastewater utilities must be reduced,” says Water Environment Federation (WEF) Executive Director Eileen O’Neill. “The new flushability guidelines and collaborative efforts to improve product stewardship practices are important steps to reducing negative impacts by improving product design and increasing consumer awareness about what should and should not be flushed.”

While the updated guidance for assessing flushability is being developed, educating utility customers is perhaps the best way to encourage them to throw used wipes in the trash instead of flushing them. WEF has a short public education video that illustrates how long it takes toilet tissue, facial tissue, and wipes to break down in the sewer system. WEF also has a list of items that should never be flushed on its website, as well as bill stuffers that are available for purchase.

If you have questions or concerns about how flushable wipes may impact your wastewater system, contact Scott Schaefer, AE2S Wastewater Practice Leader, at Scott.Schaefer@ae2s.com.

If you have any questions concerning the content of this newsletter,
please contact Heather Syverson at 701-364-9111 or Heather.Syverson@ae2s.com.
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