When states backtrack on flushable wipes, quality of life suffers
© Getty

Since 2014, a number of state and local officials have taken a hard look at a soft and seemingly trivial consumer product — flushable moist wipes. The Washington, D.C., City Council has moved to effectively ban these items, while several state legislatures and city councils have postponed action pending further study. As a mother and former caregiver to elderly grandparents, I wish they would study what they are doing to people (mainly women) with needs like mine.

The bills are meant to address a new infrastructure challenge, one that has shown up in Canada, Australia and Britain and as well as the U.S. — sewer systems developing backups behind blockages of fat, oil, and grease. Cleaning out these plugs or the residues that grow into them has become a new and unwelcome expense for wastewater managers from San Francisco and San Antonio to New York City and Washington.

ADVERTISEMENT
The messy masses come from something old and something new. The old part is sanitation systems. London’s sewers have become globally notorious for their enormous blockages, some weighing-in at many tons. In America, upgrades have included powerful wastewater grinders to pulverize congealed materials and keep flows moving. Still, a number of U.S. wastewater authorities must cope with these accumulations, though on a much smaller scale than the British.

 

The something new is improved personal hygienic practices. Unlike past generations, new parents now use not cloth diapers and washcloths but disposable diapers and wipes to care for their infants — a huge improvement. Similarly, today’s elderly enjoy a freedom and dignity unavailable when their parents grew old, thanks to wipes and other disposable sanitation items.  

But progress has brought challenges, among them getting users to read the labels. Despite clear package warnings, many people flush baby wipes down toilets. Baby wipes are interlaced with plastic threads so they won’t tear. When passing through sewers, the plastic threads can attract and trap fat, oil, and grease waste, creating a mass that grows into a pipe-and-tunnel-blocking underground encumbrance.  

In recent years, flushable wipes — that is, wipes that disintegrate in sewers — have entered the marketplace. They help parents care for toddlers. They also enable the ambulatory elderly to take better care of themselves, particularly when away from home. And nursing homes can clean residents who can’t care for themselves both faster and more often — a step up in quality of life.  

But still the question remains — do these wipes create problems in sewers? To find out, last year the City of New York commissioned a collection study of non-sewage materials that had flowed through its sewer system to reach a major treatment plant. Engineers determined that flushable wipes in various states of disintegration comprised less than two percent of the materials collection screens captured. What did they find in the remaining residue? Mostly baby wipes, other plastic laced wipes, paper towels, even trash. In other words, 98 percent of what they found was unflushable and mostly intact.

Still, state and local legislators continue to support (and in Washington’s case enact) bills to remove the word “flushable” from the packaging of wipes that, like New York’s two percent, are safe for sewers. They say the products must meet too often undefined local standards — an impractical mandate for a mass-produced national product and one that is likely to fail a court challenge. In December, a federal judge in Brooklyn criticized the effort to enact local standards on such an item, characterizing the effort as an impermissible restriction on interstate commerce.

Equally bad, flushable wipes manufacturers and some in the wastewater industry, including Hiram Tanner, who managed D.C.'s sewer pumps for 16 years, believe that driving the product from the marketplace will prompt users to turn to baby wipes and similar unflushable products and, as many do now, flush them anyway.    

Keeping our sanitation infrastructures clear and in good repair matters to everyone. But sending us back to the hygienic past is no solution. Wouldn’t doing more to teach consumers what not to flush be better than depriving us of a product that improves our lives and mitigates the problem?

And before legislating, how about considering the dignity of the elderly and the needs of mothers and nurses who use these products to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Elizabeth Samson is an attorney and real estate developer in New York.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.