Federal Attempt to Intervene on Washington D.C.’s “Flushable” Wipes Legislation Fails
Our nation’s capital is at the center of the flushable wipes debate. The Washington D.C. Council passed a law in late 2016 to require manufacturers to label their products "Do Not Flush" by the end of 2017. The law also calls for dispersibility criteria to be established so wipes that do get flushed are able to break down, to prevent expensive sewer clogs in D.C.’s wastewater infrastructure.
In July, U.S. House Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland proposed an amendment that would have revoked Washington D.C.’s flushable wipes law. Rep. Harris subsequently withdrew his amendment, to the relief of many high-profile water organizations such as the Water Environment Federation (WEF). WEF has been an outspoken critic of the damage wipes do to wastewater infrastructure. The organization launched a successful letter writing campaign to ask Congress to reject the attempt to stifle D.C.’s wipes legislation.
“If Washington D.C.’s law had been revoked by the federal government, it would have had far reaching consequences to other cities and states that are considering legislation related to these so-called ‘flushable wipes.’ The public really needs to understand how much damage these products do when they don’t break down. Many cities in the Upper Midwest have experienced expensive sewer clogs and backups caused by wipes that do not break down,” says Scott Schaefer, AE2S Wastewater Practice Leader.
Water industry organizations from around the world, including WEF and the American Public Works Association (APWA), came together in early 2017 to outline the following international water industry position statement on flushable wipes:
To prevent problems with sewers, pipe, and toilet blockages plus the human and environmental cost of sewer flooding and pollution, the organizations signing this statement below agree that:
• Only the 3Ps – Pee, Poo and toilet Paper – should be flushed.
• Currently, all wipes and personal hygiene products should be clearly marked as “Do Not Flush” and be disposed of in the bin or trashcan.
• Wipes labelled “Flushable” based on passing a manufacturers’ trade association guidance document should be labelled “Do Not Flush” until there is a standard agreed by the water and wastewater industry.
• Manufacturers of wipes and personal hygiene products should give consumers clear and unambiguous information about appropriate disposal methods.
• Looking to the future, new innovations in materials might make it possible for certain products to be flushed, if they pass a technical standard which has been developed and agreed by the water and wastewater industry. Preferably this standard would be developed under the banner of the International Standards Organization (ISO).
• Key requirements for any standard include that the product:
a) breaks into small pieces quickly;
b) must not be buoyant;
c) does not contain plastic or regenerated cellulose and only contains materials which will readily degrade in a range of natural environments.
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. Sharing the video on your utility or municipality’s website and social media channels can help spread the word.