BEMUS POINT, N.Y. – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.