A Flushable Wipes Solution? Here's What INDA Is Doing

The president of the nonwoven fabrics industry group sees substantial progress in addressing issues caused by wipes products in wastewater systems.
A Flushable Wipes Solution? Here's What INDA Is Doing
Dave Rousse

Much has been written about problems caused by wipes and paper products flushed down toilets and into sewer systems. Less has been written about the solutions.

Clean-water agencies are deploying education programs to encourage their customers to flush only materials that readily break down in the wastewater stream. Meanwhile, INDA, the association that represents the nonwoven fabrics industry, is collaborating with major clean-water associations to improve flushability assessment for wipes. At the same time, producers are working to make the wipes they market as flushable disintegrate faster.

Dave Rousse, president of INDA, believes his industry has taken major steps to improve flushable products and to encourage the proper disposal of the many wipes that are neither designed nor marketed as flushable. He talked about the industry’s efforts in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Who exactly does INDA represent?

Rousse: We are an association of member companies that represent the entire supply chain of the nonwoven fabrics industry: the suppliers of raw materials, the roll goods producers who make the fabrics, the converters who add treatments and slice and dice the material, the equipment makers, and the product brand owners. The nonwovens industry is a $30 billion business in terms of end-use products sold. INDA has about 325 members. Wipes comprise about 14 percent of the nonwovens industry.

TPO: How long has INDA been involved in dealing with the challenges faced by the wastewater community handling wipes products?

Rousse: I’ve only been in my position for about three years, but the issue has existed for a while. INDA began creating guidelines to determine flushability back in 2003, with a framework that was submitted to the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF). That framework was reviewed by WERF experts and determined to be reasonable.

The first edition of flushability guidelines was introduced in 2007; it was modified about a year and a half later in a second edition. Then, because technology improves and our ability to make things safer for wastewater systems continuously evolves, we published a third edition in 2013. We are now meeting with representatives from the wastewater sector to work on a fourth edition, based on new knowledge and further advances in technologies.

TPO: As you see it, what is the key issue with wipes in wastewater systems?

Rousse: There are many kinds of wipes, and only 7 percent of those manufactured are made and labeled to be flushed. The other 93 percent are not designed or marketed to be flushed. Most have label instructions saying they are to be disposed in the trash can — not flushed. We believe it’s that 93 percent of wipes, some of which are inappropriately flushed, that cause the problems in the wastewater sector.

TPO: Is there any evidence pointing in that direction?

Rousse: We’ve done forensic studies with wastewater agencies where we take what’s collected on pump station inlet screens, dump it on a tarp and dissect the pile piece by piece. We’ve done this in Portland, Maine, and in Malaga, California. When you combine the results, you find that almost half of what’s found in these piles is paper towels, which are not designed to be flushed. The second most common item, at close to 20 percent, is baby wipes, which are designed to be rolled up in a diaper and put in the trash.

After that comes feminine hygiene items, along with other wipes — hard-surface cleaning wipes, disinfecting wipes, facial wipes, skin care wipes. These are not designed or marketed to be flushed, but people sometimes flush them, probably because they aren’t aware of the harm that causes.

TPO: What are the flushable wipes used for? Why is there a need for them at all?

Rousse: The flushable wipes are sometimes called moist toilet tissue. They’re designed to supplement toilet paper in the cleansing process and then be disposed of down the toilet. The category was developed to meet a need. Our society is always looking for cleaner and purer.
If flushable wipes were banned tomorrow, the problem in wastewater systems would get worse, not better. That’s because people would still fulfill their need, but they’d fulfill it with wipes that aren’t compatible with wastewater systems.

TPO: Isn’t public education the real key to resolving these issues?

Rousse: We believe education is important. We believe consumers will do the right thing when they know what the right thing to do is. We acknowledge that we haven’t done as good a job as we need to in conveying proper disposal instructions on non-flushables. So we’ve developed a symbol that is easily recognized — 95 percent of the people who see it for the first time know exactly what it means. It’s a stick figure of a person dropping something in a toilet, inside a circle with crossbar through it. People recognize instantly that it means “do not flush.”

TPO: What makes this type of symbol effective?

Rousse: A symbol can be visually recognized and prominently displayed on packaging. Words can be minimized in size and hidden in large paragraphs, and people either don’t read them or can’t read them. Words are not going to do it.

TPO: How widely is this symbol being used today?

Rousse: The larger retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Target are using it on their store brands. We need more of the national brands and store brands to embrace this code of practice for labeling, but it takes time to get labels approved. If a product touches the skin, the label has to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If it contains a cleaning solvent, there is an approval process through the U.S. EPA. Those approval processes take about nine months.  

TPO: What makes it challenging to manufacture a product that is flushable to the degree the wastewater industry would like to see?

Rousse: These products need to have enough strength to hold together during transport and packaging and at the point of use, but then quickly lose that strength when flushed. Flushable wipes are highly engineered materials. They’re made from natural cellulose fibers so the fabric will break down as it travels through the system. After flushing, a combination of full saturation, constant temperatures in the low to mid-50s F and the pH change associated with wastewater combine to release the strength of the material.

TPO: What is INDA doing to help clean-water agencies educate consumers?

Rousse: We are in discussions with them about a public outreach program to educate consumers about proper disposal paths. In Maine, we conducted a pilot education campaign program with the Maine Wastewater Control Association focused on teaching people not to flush baby wipes. We did a forensic analysis of material caught on screens at the pump stations in Portland before the campaign and after. The baby wipes presence on those screens was reduced by 60 percent. INDA and the MWWCA won an Environmental Stewardship Award for that project from U.S. EPA Region 1.

TPO: What is happening with the flushability assessment guidelines? What does the 2013 edition look like and how will the next edition be different?

Rousse: The 2013 edition was a breakthrough in simplification, from 21 test methods and multiple tracks down to seven tests, all of which a product has to pass before it can be sold as flushable. Everyone agreed to the seven methods as a reasonable framework, but there was concern in the wastewater sector that some of the pass/fail thresholds could be strengthened. The current effort involves reviewing those thresholds and the test methods and developing a testing protocol where everyone can agree that if a product passes, it is safe to be flushed.

TPO: Can you cite a couple examples of the test methods and the pass-fail criteria?

Rousse: There is a slosh box test to screen out high-wet-strength materials that would have no chance of breaking down. You put the wipes in a slosh box and slosh it around for a couple of hours. Afterward, a certain percentage of the material must pass through 12 mm holes.

Then there’s a municipal pump test where we measure the energy increase in a pump as wipes are passed through. High-strength wipes would cause a pump to work harder; lower-strength wipes would be broken apart by the pump and would not cause the pump to consume more energy. In a pass-fail threshold there is an average of a 15 percent pump energy increase. Above that level, the product fails. There’s discussion on re-evaluating this test procedure to make sure first that it represents real-life wastewater system conditions, and second that the pass-fail threshold has a scientific basis.

TPO: When would you expect work on this new edition to be complete?

Rousse: We’ve been at the table since January. We have a self-imposed deadline of June 30, 2016, and it looks like we will finish the fourth edition by then, if not before.

TPO: Do you see any breakthroughs on the horizon in making flushable wipes act more like toilet paper in terms of rapid breakdown?

Rousse: I wouldn’t talk about breakthrough so much as continuous evolution. Companies are applying proprietary innovation. Some achieve the release of strength through the bonding process, the way the fibers are formed. Others use chemical binders that release on exposure to the wastewater environment. All use cellulosic fibers that biodegrade. There’s a lot of attention being paid to this issue and a lot of money being invested.

TPO: How would you characterize INDA’s relationship with the wastewater industry representatives now versus three to five years ago?

Rousse: I would say there is a significant improvement. We have a very constructive relationship. We are working collaboratively with them, sharing data and information, and discussing the true essence of the problems. I think we both better understand and appreciate the challenges each side has.

We acknowledge that there’s a problem in wastewater systems and that wipes are a significant contributor — but they’re not the only contributor. Paper towels, feminine hygiene products and other items are flushed inappropriately. Seven percent of our products are designed and marketed as flushable, but they get 99 percent of the attention. We’re trying to focus attention on the 93 percent of wipes that are sometimes inappropriately flushed. We want to educate people that the toilet is not a trash can.

TPO: How would you characterize the outlook for progress in your dealings with the clean-water industry?

Rousse: There is strong collaboration between my association and the major wastewater associations — NACWA, WEF, the American Public Works Association, and the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. We think working together is the best way to solve this problem. We’ve made significant progress and expect that will continue.


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