The damaging history of flushable wipes

So-called flushable disposable wipes have become a hot topic for many consumers, municipal services, and local governments. Despite them being marketed as “flushable,” these wipes do not sufficiently break down or dissolve after they have been flushed. Manufacturers continue to label wipes as flushable because a standard has not been defined within the United States, misleading consumers. In fact, flushable wipes cause serious damage to people’s personal plumbing in their homes and to citywide sewer systems, including blockages called “fatbergs.” Fatbergs are clogs formed from flushable wipes that haven’t broken down combined with oil, grease, and fat that get stuck in sewer systems and cause backups. In November 2016, employees of DC Water testified in front of the DC Council on the fatbergs caused by flushable wipes in DC’s sewer system; you can see detailed photos of fatbergs and read their testimony on the DC Water website.

Photo of fatbergs taken by DC Water.

According to DC Water, damages to sewer systems from these wipes can cost the city $50,000 to $100,000 each time, adding up to $1 million in local repair costs in 2014. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has stated that Canada spends $250 million annually on addressing issues stemming from flushable wipes within wastewater treatment plants. New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates that it costs the city $3 million a year to clean these wipes out of the sewer systems.

Beyond wreaking havoc on sewer systems, these wipes release their plastic ingredients into the environment. Marine biologist Richard Thomas at the International Marine Litter Research Unit has discussed the similarities between these wipes and microplastics, claiming that they pollute marine life and habitat. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has also warned against the use of these wipes, and the flushing of these wipes, because of the way they break down into microplastics and show up in the stomachs of marine life.

In order to address the large discrepancy between the label on these wipes and their performance, the Washington, D.C. Council passed a bill in 2016 setting standards for flushable wipes and banning the use of that term on labeling if companies don’t meet these standards. The Maryland Senate passed a similar bill in 2017, though the House of Delegates declined to take action. The New York City Council also introduced a bill, with strong support from NYC Department of Environmental Protection, that had similar provisions. Unfortunately, the DC bill has faced significant pushback from industry, who claim that the standard they defined for flushable, is adequate. This industry pushback has gone so far as to involve Congress in DC’s implementation of their bill; Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD) briefly threatened to dismantle this bill through the appropriations process, ignoring DC Council’s autonomy in serving its residents.

With so many hurdles and setbacks these bills have encountered, cities and citizens are taking a different approach to standing up against industry’s false labeling. There have been discussions of class action suits against the companies marketing their wipes as flushable with citizens who have experienced plumbing problems and city agencies as the plaintiffs. Just last month a class action lawsuit was filed against Kimberly-Clark Corporation for property damage caused by their “Scott Naturals Flushable Cleansing Cloths” and for the mislabeling of their product. This lawsuit is in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Right here in Maryland we are exploring bypassing the legislative process to go straight to the culprit:

If you are a resident of Maryland and have experienced plumbing problems from flushable wipes, the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office wants to hear from you. Those complaints can be made here. Depending on the responses from residents, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office may be seeking a similar route with a class action lawsuit to more effectively combat the increasing problems caused by industry’s interference with regulating these wipes. You can make your voice heard and help fight back against these detrimental products.

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