What’s Flushable? What Isn’t?

The proliferation of “wipes” is causing widespread problems in sewerage systems. A group in Maine is helping lead the search for responsible remedies.
What’s Flushable? What Isn’t?
Scott Firmin, Portland Water District director of wastewater services.

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First came baby wipes. Then hand towelettes. Then makeup remover wipes. Disinfecting wipes for the kitchen. Furniture wipes. Protectant wipes for vehicle tires. On it goes. A search on the Wal-Mart website brings up nearly 600 wipes products.

Where do all these wipes go? Some of them — not an insignificant number — get flushed down toilets, where they contribute to home plumbing blockages, septic system trouble, municipal sewer overflows, and increased loading on headworks in wastewater treatment plants.

Personnel at many wastewater utilities are concerned. They include members of the Maine WasteWater Control Association (MWWCA), which has formed a task force to address the issue. Ultimately, the group would like to see wipes products makers create some clarity around which products are flushable and which are not.

At present, the MWWCA believes labeling is inconsistent and consumers are confused. Meanwhile, products get flushed that do not break down in the system the way toilet tissue does (these are called "non-dispersibles"). So clean-water agencies nationally have to spend more labor and money dealing with wipes that they would rather invest in improving their infrastructure.

Those active in the MWWCA effort include Scott Firmin, director of wastewater services with the Portland Water District, which operates four wastewater treatment plants, the interceptor system of Portland and collection systems for some surrounding communities. Firmin talked about non-dispersibles in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What specific issues do you see non-dispersibles causing?

Firmin: A lot of these materials are being used in the bathroom, such as to remove makeup or clean fixtures, and then they're getting flushed. When they're flushed, if they don't break down like toilet paper, we generally find them in the system.

At the homeowner level, people find their toilets or the plumbing in their house plugging. People who own septic systems are having issues where the tank inlet or outlet will plug. The items can get into the drainfield if the tank baffles aren't in good condition.

What about the effect on municipal sewer systems?

Firmin: We see issues where, during low flows, if you have a pipe that doesn't have the proper slope, or if you have an imperfection that allows clingers, these wipes can build up and cause sanitary sewer overflows during dry-weather conditions. In one location, we've had six overflows from a combined sewer in dry weather because these materials, along with other materials and grease, have plugged a line and backed it up. Other utilities in Maine have had SSOs directly caused by plugged pumps.

What is the impact on mechanical equipment in collection systems?

Firmin: I was involved in a project at our Cottage Place pump station in Westbrook where we replaced four 125 hp 10-inch pumps, and as soon as the project was done, every time it rained, those new pumps would plug. The station would still pump, but we were literally breaking pumps apart. So we did an expedited project that cost $4 million to put headworks screens ahead of those pumps.

In another case, we had a set of submersible pump stations in three residential neighborhoods in one township where every Friday, we would send a crew out and they would spend the day pulling the pumps, opening the pumps, and pulling the material out.

The pumps started plugging regularly, so we started pre-emptively going out and removing the material.

How would you assess the cost of this work?

Firmin: We estimated the cost of the labor for doing that weekly, with two people, was in the ballpark of $25,000 to $30,000 a year. So we decided to replace the submersible pumps. We spent $50,000 upgrading those pump stations.

The Portland Water District is the largest wastewater utility in the state, and we have the resources to make that kind of investment to offset the labor cost. But a lot of smaller utilities don't have the funds to do those upgrades, and their only recourse is to keep sending people out there. No utility is excited about raising rates. We're all struggling to replace aging infrastructure, and we really ought to be putting our money into that, not going out and unplugging the same pumps every Friday.

Are there issues at the wastewater treatment plant level as well?

Firmin: At the plant level, people are also finding these wipes in their pumps. We've found them in the draft tubes in our secondary clarifiers. At one plant, we used to have 3/4-inch screens, so a lot of that kind of material got through.

We've since upgraded, and the material is now being removed, but even when it's removed by a screen, there's still the disposal cost, the management cost, and the upkeep on the screening equipment.

Do you see the trend toward more non-dispersibles continuing?

Firmin: There's a group called INDA that is the national trade association for manufacturers of nonwoven fabrics. We've seen data that INDA has put out indicating that over the next several years, they expect the sales of wipes to increase by two to four times. People like these products. They're not going away. We don't want them to go away. We just want them to be friendlier to our sewers and more rapidly disperse.

Is the concern widespread in the clean-water industry?

Firmin: Yes. We started hearing more and more about this issue through the MWWCA. Ultimately the association sent out a survey. Ninety percent of respondents to that survey indicated they had experienced some sort of issue with their equipment or process as a result of non-dispersible products.

What has the Maine association done to address this issue?

Firmin: As a result of that survey back in 2011, the MWWCA supported state legislation asking for proper labeling of these materials. Manufacturers started putting the word "flushable" on some products, and we felt that was confusing consumers.

We were looking for clear labeling of products and for manufacturers to follow the standard they had developed. If they were labeled as flushable, we wanted them to meet the flushability guidelines INDA has developed. Essentially, the product has to become unrecognizable in a reasonable period of time, it has to pass through plumbing, and it can't cause interference with sewage systems. In other words, it has to act like toilet paper and disperse easily.

Our proposed legislation in Maine would have required that they very clearly label what's flushable, and very clearly label what's not flushable. If it was to be labeled flushable, it would have to meet the INDA guidelines. INDA is working on Edition 3 of these guidelines that will be more stringent than the current version, and the wastewater industry is urging INDA to include a requirement for more rapid dispersibility.

What happened to this proposed legislation?

Firmin: Last January, the Maine legislature voted that the legislation ought not to pass. I learned through the experience. The legislators would say, "Who's having an issue?" We would say, "A lot of people." They would say, "What's clogging the pumps?" We would say, "Baby wipes." They would say, "Do you have any data?" And the answer was "No." The legislature did write a letter to the MWWCA and INDA asking us to continue working together on the issue.

During the process, we learned that similar legislation had failed in California and New Jersey. So we reached out to find out who was involved. We connected with Nick Arhontes, who is the director of collection facilities operations with the Orange County Sanitation District in California, and with Rob Villee of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority in New Jersey, who chairs the Water Environment Federation Collection Systems Committee. Ultimately, I was asked to join the Collection Systems Committee and to become part of an MWWCA Flushables Task Force.

What has the Maine group done since the legislation failed?

Firmin: We began working with INDA. We invited their representatives to our Cottage Place pump station at Westbrook. We shut off the screening compactor and collected the material. The INDA people went through everything and identified what it was. Between 17 and 24 percent of the material we pulled off our screen was baby wipes that won't disperse.

We've continued working with INDA, and one thing they're going to do is to create focus groups so we can start to understand consumer behavior: What do people know about wipes? What do they know about whether they're flushable? What do they know about how to dispose of them? The next step is to figure out what can be done from a marketing or labeling perspective to help people understand how to dispose of these materials properly.

What else have you done to help gather data and define the problem?

Firmin: Based on what we saw INDA doing at our pump station, we thought that if we could create a pump clog and sewer obstruction SOP [standard operating procedure], and if we could model it after what the INDA people did to identify the materials, but yet make it practical enough that collection system or treatment plant operators would do it, and if there were a standardized form, we could start collecting data that would help us understand the nature of pump clogs and where they were happening.

We developed the SOP, and the MWWCA introduced it at our 2012 spring conference. Now we're trying to get people to use it. The form asks them to go through and separate the material into piles: large wipes, medium wipes, small wipes, paper towels, feminine products and other.

Where can operators get access to this SOP?

Firmin: It's available on the MWWCA website at www.mwwca.org/pump clogsop.html.

What role do you see consumer education playing in helping to address this problem?

Firmin: It's too easy to say, "Educate the consumers." Who's going to educate them? If I don't have time to unplug pumps, I certainly don't have time to call everybody and ask them not to flush wipes. At Portland Water District, our public relations staff has developed literature and, working with a local university, decals, posters, etc. The effectiveness of our PR campaign was limited, and again smaller utilities simply don't have the resources to wage this education battle.

In terms of educating consumers, one thing we see is utilities telling people the only thing they should flush is toilet paper. And yet the industry is coming out with these "flushable" wipes. There are products we've tested, where we put them in a beaker with water and a stirrer, and they do break up and they're probably truly flushable. But some products aren't flushable, yet say they are. Some products don't say anything but are sold next to a "flushable" product. If the utilities are saying don't flush the products, and the manufacturers are saying you can flush these products, consumers are going to get very confused. We all need to be on the same page.

Our position is "You need to do better non-flushable labeling to make education possible." Ideally, we'd like to see the industry make more products that really do break down in the sewer. Of course, they're probably going to be more expensive, and they're probably not going to be as strong.

How would you assess the benefits of the work done so far?

Firmin: We have benefited here in Maine by reaching out to the people in California and New Jersey. We have a stronger collaborative voice in working with the industry, which has been as responsive as you could expect them to be. Now if we can define the problem better and get some data together, and if we can share that data with legislators, other communities nationally, decision makers and the industry, we'll be able to begin a meaningful discussion of the issue, and hopefully start making some headway.


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