Message Getting Through?

There’s growing recognition that nondispersible wipes are a problem. And there’s a growing base of information to help clean-water agencies communicate solutions.

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The message about the harmful nature of some disposable wipes seems to be making its way into the mainstream. It’s reaching from the treatment plant and collection system workers who have to deal with the problems, to trade magazines like this one, all the way into general-interest newspapers.

Earlier this year, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist wrote about wipes plaguing the sewer system in a suburban community. A similar article appeared in the Times Herald-Record newspaper in Middletown, N.Y. These are signs that information is starting to reach the people who need it most, which is to say everyday citizens.

Not every clean-water agency has issues with wipes, but if your agency is among those that do, you may not need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to public information. There’s more already available than you may think — it’s effective, and some of it is downright entertaining.

Sing about it

Falling into the entertaining category is a song, “Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes),” by Steve Anderson, water resources analyst with Clean Water Services in Oregon. Though he would likely deny it, his voice bears a resemblance to Neil Young’s. Some lyrics:

Young mother changing diapers on her newborn
She grabs a moist towelette to cleanse his skin
With baby changed she walks up to the toilet
The towelette in her hand she tosses in
She doesn’t know the baby wipe’s a tough one
And it can make a clog in sewer pipes

You’ll find this and various other items on the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) website at Another clever little item there is a “Smart Flush Bunny” poster — the bunny of course knows the only thing it’s safe to flush is toilet paper.

The agency that got my attention about this issue, the Portland (Maine) Water District, has its own approach in a mascot called Stopper the Unflushable — he’s a cylindrical plastic wipes container with arms, legs and a crooked smile. There’s also a 5-minute public service announcement video created for the district by students at the University of Southern Maine.

Hard evidence

There are all sorts of more prosaic materials on the NACWA site — links to Web pages, newsletters, videos, reports and studies, and seminar presentations. You could look no farther than this site and accumulate quite a bit of information and an arsenal of ideas for your own communication programs.

If you want a dramatic display of what “flushable” does and doesn’t mean, there’s a “Will It Flush?” video created by the City of Spokane (Wash.) Department of Wastewater Management. It demonstrates the relative dispersibility of various products, including regular and plush toilet paper and facial tissues.

Each item is placed in a separate glass container stirred by an electrically powered propeller. The toilet papers break apart quickly (although the plush version takes a lot longer). The wipes do not — and, for that matter, neither do the single-ply and triple-ply facial tissues.

Also tested are feminine hygiene products, cotton swabs, and dental floss (which promptly winds around the propeller shaft, showing how it would behave in contact with wastewater treatment equipment). Getting this video in front of consumers could likely do a great deal to get them to revisit their habits.

The moral of the story, according to the video narrator: “The only things that should ever be flushed down the toilet are human waste and toilet paper. Anything else can cause backups in the system and headaches for you.”

And the moral of a larger story is: If you need to inform your public about the hazards of wipes and what not to flush, much of your work is already done. Most likely, agencies with materials on the NACWA site would be more than happy to share them.


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