Grownups are now using the same wipes once reserved for babies, leading to millions of dollars of sewer problems. A New York City bill takes aim at the lack of transparency and mislabeling some say is to blame
Disposable wipes essentially baby wipes designed for adults have become the scourge of residential and municipal sewer systems around the world.
Nonwoven cloths have been getting stuck in pipes and sewer machinery, creating massive, expensive clogs in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney, London and many other places for years, sparking lawsuits from cities and consumers.
Now, New York Citys city council, with the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, is working on a bill that would require companies to clearly label their products. Councilman Donovan Richards, who introduced the bill, told me that it was inspired by conversations with New Yorks Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP is spending an extra $10m per year to process the cloths, he says.
Wipes make up a large and broad market, used for household cleaning, makeup removal, hand sanitization, sunscreen application and more. Adam Page, a business manager for market research publisher Smithers Apex, says the wipes market currently valued at $13.2bn has been growing at 6% to 7% percent annually for much of the past decade. Smithers Apex predicts it will continue to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.8% until at least 2019.
A cleaning tool becomes a dirty problem
For sewer systems, the most problematic type of wipes are the personal wipes that adults are increasingly using at the toilet. Baby wipes, which spearheaded the wipes revolution, represented a simple disposal problem. Used to clean babies during diaper changes, the cloths went along with the soiled nappies into a diaper pail or other receptacle, and then into the solid waste stream.
However, as the use of personal wipes expanded from babies to adults, a problem emerged: most adults dont keep a diaper pail in the bathroom. Weve found that consumers are reluctant to put used wipes in the bathroom trash can, says Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the advocacy group the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. That is why there is a demand for wipes that are flushable.
Unfortunately, the majority of wipes on the market dont biodegrade quickly enough to avoid clogging the pipes. According to Joe Munafo, a plumbing engineer with New York-based Dagher Engineering, even toilet paper – which is designed to biodegrade – can get caught in pipes with imperfections.
And the more durable the material is, the more likely it is to clog, he adds. If youre flushing paper towels, youre running a bigger risk than with toilet paper. And if youre flushing wipes even flushable wipes the chance of a clog goes up.
Once stuck, toilet paper or wipes create a blockage. Other things catch on, and the next thing you know youre calling the Roto Rooter man and paying a few hundred bucks to get your drain snaked, Munafo says. And if a few flushed wipes can cause a problem for a home, then this only becomes additive for municipal systems, which are meant for handling items that break down relatively easily.
This problem has been borne out in sewer systems around the world, which already are being pushed to the limit by growing populations, climate change, insufficient infrastructure investment and other problems.
According to experts at Thames Water, flushable wipes were a major factor in Londons notorious fatberg, a 15-ton lump of congealed grease that nearly flooded the citys already stressed sewer system and took three weeks to dismantle in 2013. We have 59,000 miles of sewer, and fat and wet wipes are the main partners in sewer abuse crime, spokesman Simon Evans told the Guardian at the time.
More recently, wipes also have caused a big stink in New York City, where officials say they have resulted in $18m in equipment problems in the past five years. The citys water management facilities are already straining at the seams without the wipes in some areas, as little as one-tenth of an inch of stormwater per hour can overwhelm the sewer system and cause flash flooding.
For overstressed systems, flushable wipes can be the last straw.
A matter of definition?
Part of the problem, Finley says, is that many consumers are confused about which wipes are flushable and which are not. Manufacturers are partially to blame: given the marketing benefits of flushability, some are reticent to tell users that their products should not go in the toilet. In response, the International Nonwovens and Disposables Association and the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association have published a voluntary code of practice, which includes a requirement that nonflushable wipes be clearly marked with a do not flush logo.
But the code doesnt specify where the logo should go, and some manufacturers to put it in places where the average consumer will never notice it. Instructions to not flush a wipe product need to be more prominent than most companies are currently using, Finley says. The instructions are often easy to miss, on the back of the package in fine print or even under the package flap.
Some companies go further, claiming their products are flushable when they actually could cause sewer problems, says Bob Brand, director of external communications for wipes manufacturer Kimberly-Clark. Its bad for the marketplace and bad for consumers when there are products making flushable claims that are not supported by the performance of the product, he says.
New York Councilman Richards agrees. Basically, our bill states that, if a company puts flushable on a nonflushable wipe, they will be fined.
Meanwhile, the federal trade commission has also taken aim at underlabeling. On 18 May, it reached a settlement in which wipes manufacturer Nice-Pak agreed to stop advertising its products as safe to flush or safe for septic systems when they are not.
Nice-Pak sells many of its products under other labels, including Costco, CVS and Target. Some of these companies, in turn, have come under fire for selling insufficiently labeled products.
In response, Finley says, Costco has emerged as a labeling leader. Theyve put a do not flush logo on the top of every wipes package and box of wipes, she says. The wastewater industry wants this policy to spread. We want clear labels on top of all wipes packages, regardless of where theyre sold.
Another problem, Finley points out, is that many flushable wipes are too thick and strong for sewer systems. One solution, which Finleys organization is pursuing, involves working with the wipes industry to create products that are truly safe for sewer systems. Some companies have developed flushable wipes that you can actually see falling apart in water, she says. In fact, theyre better than some types of toilet paper.
Brand claims that his company has worked to develop flushable wipes that are compatible with wastewater systems because they lose strength rapidly and break down.
But even in the best of circumstances, the very term wipes can create confusion. Finley points out that some utilities instruct customers that they should only flush the three Ps: pee, poop and toilet paper.
In this context, distinguishing flushable from nonflushable wipes could be an exercise in futility. It may be best not to call flushable products wipes, so we can clearly tell people not to flush wipes, Finley says.
Choosing the best path
Some of the pressure for voluntary labeling comes from the twin forces of lawsuits and potential government regulations. The most useful pressure on this issue has come from class action lawsuits aimed at the industry, Finley says.
By drawing consumer attention to the problem, lawsuits such as the $5m suit launched in New York City last year have made companies more aware of the risks of insufficient labeling.
Another possible solution might be to restrict the wipes industry via legal guidelines. But Finley argues that such restrictions would likely be difficult to pass. California, Maine and New Jersey have all tried to pass legislation that would regulate wipes, she says. The wipes industry pushed back, and the legislation failed.
Finley doesnt believe that government regulation is the best approach, in any case. It can take a long time to get regulations ratified and enacted, she says. Then, when theyre passed, they can be almost impossible to change. The industry is quickly developing, and we need policies that are flexible enough to develop with it.
A big part of the problem is that, for all its recent growth, the wipes market is still something of a mystery. Companies still have little idea about how wipes are used or regarded by customers. We dont yet have all the answers to this problem, Finley says. Any regulations would be premature.
Richards disagrees, saying that regulation is needed. We have very little faith in self regulation, he says. If it was working, there wouldnt be any need for the government to step in. But the DEP has been talking to us about this for years. And while some wipes makers are progressing, the adjustment isnt happening as quickly as we would want to see it.
Richards says his office is also working with wipes producers directly, and adds that consumers will also have a big role to play in solving the problem. Even when we pass this bill and it will pass the public will have to be educated, he says.
At least he and Finley agree on this: as the wipes industry evolves, consumers and companies alike need to learn more about what is and isnt responsible to put in the toilet.
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