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.
Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, holds up an intact “flushable” wipe he sent through his test toilet in his office. The popular towelettes are being blamed for causing severe sewer clogs.
"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.
WHAT WAS LEFT?
A study by the Portland Water District in Maine in 2011 analyzed what was causing clogs in their sewer pipes and came up with this breakdown:
- 42 percent paper products, including paper towels
- 24 percent baby wipes
- 17 percent feminine hygiene products
- 8 percent "flushable" wipes
- Remainder, other items, including household wipes, cosmetic pads and medical materials.
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.
The problem got worldwide attention in July when London officials reported finding 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.