Bathroom wipes constipate sewer systems

Although advertised as flushable, pre-moistened towelettes creating clogs
Associated Press
Sep 24, 2013


Increasingly popular bathroom wipes — pre-moistened towelettes that are often advertised as flushable — are being blamed for creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation.

Wastewater authorities say wipes may go down the toilet, but even many labeled flushable aren't breaking down as they course through the sewer system. That's costing some municipalities millions of dollars to dispatch crews to unclog pipes and pumps and to replace and upgrade machinery.

The problem got so bad in this western New York community this summer that sewer officials set up traps — basket strainers in sections of pipe leading to an oft-clogged pump — to figure out which households the wipes were coming from. They mailed letters and then pleaded in person for residents to stop flushing them.

"We could walk right up, knock on the door and say, 'Listen, this problem is coming right from your house,'" said Tom Walsh, senior project coordinator at South & Center Chautauqua Lake Sewer Districts, which was dispatching crews at least once a week to clear a grinder pump that would seize up trying to shred the fibrous wipes.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 wastewater agencies, says it has been hearing complaints about wipes from sewer systems big and small for about the past four years.

That roughly coincides with the ramped-up marketing of the "flushable cleansing cloths" as a cleaner, fresher option than dry toilet paper alone. A trade group says wipes are a $6 billion-a-year industry, with sales of consumer wipes increasing nearly 5 percent a year since 2007 and expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent annually for the next five years.

One popular brand, Cottonelle, has a campaign called "Let's talk about your bum" and ads showing people trying to wash their hair with no water. It ends with the tagline: "You can't clean your hair without water, so why clean your bum that way?"

Manufacturers insist wipes labeled flushable aren't the problem, pointing instead to baby and other cleaning wipes marked as nonflushable that are often being used by adults.

"My team regularly goes sewer diving" to analyze what's causing problems, said Trina McCormick, a senior manager at Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Cottonelle. "We've seen the majority, 90 percent in fact, are items that are not supposed to be flushed, like paper towels, feminine products or baby wipes."

Wastewater officials agree that wipes, many of which are made from plastic, aren't the only culprits but say their problems have escalated with the wipes market.

Vancouver, Wash., sewer officials say wipes labeled as flushable are a big part of a problem that has caused that city to spend more than $1 million in the past five years replacing three large sewage pumps and eight smaller ones that were routinely clogging.

To prove their point, they dyed several kinds of wipes and sent them through the sewer for a mile to see how they would break up. They didn't.

Those labeled flushable, engineer Frank Dick said, had "a little rips and tears but still they were intact."

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, has also spent more than $1 million over five years installing heavy-duty grinders, while the Orange County, Calif., Sanitation District, in a single year recorded 971 "de-ragging" maintenance calls on 10 pump stations at a cost of $320,000.

Clogging problems in Waukesha, Wis., prompted the sewer authority there to create a "Keep Wipes out of Pipes" flier. And Ocean City, Md., and Sitka, Alaska, are among cities that have also publicly asked residents not to flush wipes, regardless of whether they are labeled flushable.

The problem got worldwide attention in July when London sewer officials reported removing a 15-ton "bus-sized lump" of wrongly flushed grease and wet wipes, dubbed the "fatberg."

The complaints have prompted a renewed look at solving the problem.

The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, the trade group known as INDA, recently revised voluntary guidelines and specified seven tests for manufacturers to use to determine which wipes to call flushable. It also recommends a universal do-not-flush logo — a crossed-out stick figure and toilet — be prominently displayed on non-dispersible products.

The wastewater industry would prefer mandatory guidelines and a say in what's included but supports the INDA initiatives as a start. Three major wastewater associations issued a joint statement with INDA last week to signal a desire to reach a consensus on flushability standards.

"If I'm doing the test, I'm going to throw a wipe in a bucket of water and say it has to disintegrate," said Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewage Authority in New Jersey.

Nicholas Arhontes, director of facilities support services in Orange County, Calif., has an even simpler rule for what should go down the toilet.

"Only flush pee, poop and toilet paper," he said, "because those are the only things that sanitary sewers were really designed for in the old days."




The municipalities should sue the manufacturer of these products if they can prove that they are not going to disintegrate.


For years, plumbers and workers at sewage treatment plants have complained about these so called flushable wipes. Businesses that clean out septic tanks will tell you the same. Nobody listened.

The news media waited years to report this. These flushable wipes are a billion dollar business. In a way, the word "flushable" is not a lie. Many things are flushable including plastic toys, condoms, false teeth and many other things that do not degrade like toilet paper.
"Paper products, such as paper towels, moist towelettes, handy wipes, disposable towels, diapers, napkins, and tampons. The only truly flushable paper product is toilet paper. Other products might say they're flushable, but why take the chance?"

The Bizness

Some even say septic system safe.


I for one am sick of the bum wipe commercials and companies trying to sell us yet one more thing we really don't need. If you don't feel clean, take a bath. TP should serve the purpose just fine and I really don't know why we must be subjected to this crap on TV. Personal hygiene should be just that=personal and not on television.


Well then get rid of the Tampax and Stayfree ads too. That's kinda personal.


Kotex and tampax are not flushable , either, but, stupid people do it everyday. The toilets at work used to get clogged and overflow all the time. No matter how many signs went up on the stall doors. The receptacles would be right there by the tp.

Raoul Duke

If they WERE going to disintegrate, wouldn't they do so(or start to)right in the package?

Pterocarya frax...

Must be Obama's fault.

"If it's flushable, it sells, even if it's not" (FEB 2008)

"Move over tampons, you've got competition! The term “flushable” certainly is a catchy phrase. Add “safe for sewer and septic systems” and you've got a very powerful sales pitch. Evidently the definitions of “flushable” and “safe” are subject to interpretation. If a given product can make it through a water closet, it's certainly flushable, but does that make it suitable for being introduced into a sanitary sewer line? If it doesn't explode or cause physical damage to the sewer line or septic system, does that mean the product therefore is safe?"

"Here's the deal: The only things that should be flushable are toilet paper, urine and fecal matter. Over the years, we've removed tons of things that made it through the water closet but never made it through the customer's sewer line. That “flushable” list includes toys, diapers, socks, underpants, false teeth, jewelry, hypodermic needles, a bank deposit bag, golf balls, a soft ball, Mason jar lids, pets (deceased) and more. Tampons long have been the single most reliable sewer-stopper — until now."


Flushable means it goes down the toilet. No false advertising.

Stop It

Should state "biodegradable". If it doesn't, it will cause problems in any septic drainage system.


All paper products not meant to be flushed should have the word "flushable" changed to NON-FLUSHABLE on the package. Plus there should be a warning about not being biodegradable in sewers and septic tanks.

Plastic fibers in these wipes add strength to the wipes.

Hemp fibers are strong yet biodegradable. If hemp fibers were substituted for the plastic fibers, then you would have a truly flushable wipe safe for sewers and septic tanks.

Of course the plastic industry would be against this. So would the DEA and law enforcement which would mean a loss of job security.

If hemp fiber were used, it would need to be imported from Canada and other hemp producing countries. Why not allow farmers in the United States to produce hemp?
List of countries where it is legal to grow hemp.
"Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Tuesday signaled to advocates that he would support an amendment to the farm bill that will legalize industrial hemp production, according to Tom Murphy of Vote Hemp. Leahy's office, he said, told the group Rural Vermont that he'd be backing the effort, and a Leahy aide confirmed his support to HuffPost."

"Leahy sent a strongly worded letter to the DEA asking why it had not been granting permits in recent years to hemp producers, and citing increased state support for domestically grown hemp. The DEA, in its reply, pointedly refused to refer to the plant as hemp, preferring cannabis or marijuana instead."