WAMU 88.5: Fighting the wrong enemy?


Dec. 05

Original Source: WAMU 88.5

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Dave Rousse says he wants D.C. Water to work with his industry to find out whether flushables are really causing clogs. Citing a recent study that found the products accounted for only 2 percent of solids found in New York City’s pipes, he says the products have been made into a scapegoat for the real culprits: baby wipes, paper towels and other nonflushables.

Duane McCoy is standing on the edge of a terrifying drop. One misstep and he could plummet into a mountain of sewage debris.

Fortunately, there are barriers around this opening in the floor at D.C.’s Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant. McCoy, the plant’s wastewater foreman, is peering down at a truck container loaded with solids removed from the region’s sewers. The detritus consists of, well, anything Washingtonians have flushed into their pipes lately. Dental floss. Hair. Food. Feminine hygiene products. The occasional diaper — and wipes.

Oh, the wipes.

Extremely durable and increasingly popular, wipes have become a pox upon wastewater treatment plants. They’re known to clog pipes, strain water pumps and stress the heck out of people like George Hawkins.

A container filled with sewage debris at Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in D.C.WAMU/Ally Schweitzer

Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water, gets fired up when the subject of wipes is raised. He says they’ve been giving him headaches for years now. Worse yet, he says, some wipes are marketed as “flushable.”

“Wipes, and the definition of ‘flushable,’ has been an issue for our industry for some time,” Hawkins says. “We know that most of these flushable products — so labeled — are not.”

That’s why the water utility chief supports new local legislation that would limit what wipes can be labeled and sold as “flushable” in D.C. Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh introduced the Nonwoven Disposable Products Act in July.

“We looked at definitions [of flushable] that come out of the wastewater industries themselves,” Cheh says. “They have a definition of what’s flushable that these products do not meet.”

Cheh’s bill would require wipes to meet certain standards before they can be sold as flushable in the District.

Many kinds of wipes are sold at local stores. But only some — about 7 percent of wipes sold nationwide, according to industry figures – are marketed as flushable. These wipes are different from your average baby wipe. They’re usually made with cellulose so they break down faster than regular wipes in wastewater systems. Their target market is adults who use them to freshen up their derrières.

Cheh says those adults are apparently “not as comfortable with taking the wipe that they use and throwing it in the trash, as you might with a baby [wipe].”

Cynthia Finley at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies says only “the three P’s” are truly flushable: pee, poop and toilet paper.

Water authorities began calling Finley about flushable wipes in 2008, she says. Today, wipes of all kinds have been linked to a growing number of sewer clogs in major cities. Wipes combine with another leading pipes-blocker — fats — to create beastly superclogs. One such mass in London took sewer workers three weeks to dislodge. That legendary clog earned the nickname “fatberg.”

Currently, there is no enforceable standard of flushability. Instead, the trade association that represents wipes manufacturers has been following its own rules.

Using a sledgehammer to kill a fly

Dave Rousse is president of the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, also called INDA. He says it took extensive research and testing for his industry to develop what they consider a flushable wipe.

“You think about what a flushable wipe is asked to do. It is really a material-science achievement,” Rousse says.

According to Rousse, flushable wipes have to pull off a tricky balancing act. They must be strong enough to travel wet and hold up during use, but they also have to break down reasonably well in water systems. INDA has a list of flushability guidelines that set the industry standard. One test of flushability involves sloshing a wipe around in a jiggling box of water for three hours, then measuring how well it disintegrates.

Finley says INDA’s standards don’t go far enough.

Under INDA’s rules, she says, “wipes can stay intact for much longer than they should in a real sewer system. In a real sewer system… they’re going to get to a pump or some other equipment in a relatively short amount of time.”

Tests performed last summer in Vancouver, Washington, deposited a variety of wipes into a local sewer and fished them out downstream 30 minutes later. Even after a romp through the system, many wipes — including some labeled “flushable” — remained intact.

Other tests have shown that wipes can strain water pumps, causing utilities to use more electricity, and potentially leading to more clogs later on.

The flushability rules backed by NACWA and D.C. Water are stricter than the industry’s, and they’re calling for wipes marketed as flushable to be labeled “Do Not Flush” until water officials get to help define the standards.

Dave Rousse says the wastewater industry is trying to hold wipes to a “toilet-paper standard,” comparing D.C.’s proposed rules to “a sledgehammer killing a fly.”

“[A sledgehammer] will always kill the fly,” Rousse says. “But do you really need a sledgehammer to kill a fly, when something less rigorous would do the job, and allow a little more freedom in the kind of materials that can be offered to consumers?”

INDA has been campaigning against Cheh’s legislation, taking out newspaper ads that spin the bill as an invasion of bathroom privacy. In Washington Times op-ed, Rousse contends that upping standards on flushables would effectively ban them citywide — and that could lead consumers to get their wipes fix with nonflushable options.

“We think you’ll have 50 percent more baby wipes in the system than they have today, and baby wipes are known to cause problems,” Rousse says.

Fighting the wrong enemy?

Dave Rousse says he wants D.C. Water to work with his industry to find out whether flushables are really causing clogs. Citing a recent study that found the products accounted for only 2 percent of solids found in New York City’s pipes, he says the products have been made into a scapegoat for the real culprits: baby wipes, paper towels and other nonflushables.

Wastewater foreman Duane McCoy shows off a filtration screen at the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in D.C.WAMU/Ally Schweitzer

Hawkins says he’s not sure how many clogs are directly caused by flushables, but marketing any wipes as “flushable” is not helping.

“This kind of wipe, flushable or nonflushable, neither of them disperse,” Hawkins says. “Even if one is a little better than the other, neither of them do what they’re supposed to do.”

In 2015 the Federal Trade Commission brought a complaint against wipes manufacturer Nice-Pak, saying it failed to substantiate claims that its products are flushable. The company agreed to back up its marketing.

Cynthia Finley says NACWA and INDA began to collaborate on a new set of flushability guidelines a couple of years back, but talks have stalled.

In her testimony to the D.C. Council on the wipes bill, Finley points to research that shows truly flushable wipes do exist. Those products just aren’t for sale in the U.S. Hawkins says the American wipes industry could rise to that standard.

“The answer, to the industry, is not to say, ‘Oh, woe is us,’” Hawkins says. “They could easily retool to sell in the U.S. what is sold [elsewhere], which is a wipe that we would agree is flushable. Then the problem’s solved.”

A stopgap

For now, D.C. Water has been tackling the problem in its own way: by ramping up its technology.

Showing off a powerful filter at the Blue Plains plant, Duane McCoy seems almost proud of the equipment.

“We spent a lot of thought process in getting these microscreens,” McCoy says, peering into a screen speckled with paper bits and leaves. “We used to have to use manual labor to rake these screens off. So they went out and looked at the best technology.”

Now, McCoy says, screens like these are one of the smartest investments a modern water treatment plant can make. They help powerfully filter out the cornucopia of garbage people chuck into their pipes these days.

But after this week, sanitation workers like McCoy may have a slightly less cloggy future to look forward to. The Nonwoven Disposable Products Act comes up for a second vote on Tuesday, and it’s expected to pass.