Can Education Solve the Disposable Wipes Problem?

Truly flushable materials? Better product labeling? Screens and grinders at treatment plants? All fine, but the real answer for wipes in sewers lies in education.

A friend a few years ago told me he’d been prescribed medication for high blood pressure. I asked why he didn’t try non-pharmaceutical remedies. His response: “My doctor said it’s easier to medicate than to get people to change their habits.”

Does something similar apply to curing the problems that wipes are causing in wastewater collections systems? Is it possible to teach millions upon millions of people not to flush things down the toilet that don’t disintegrate like toilet paper? Or is it better for a clean-water agency to install equipment to grind up the offending items? Or for wipes producers to make their products more truly flushable?

Interesting questions. Last month TPO carried an interview-style article featuring the president of INDA, the trade group for the nonwoven fabrics industry, whose products include an assortment of wipes. I was encouraged by his report on how the industry is responding to the wipes problem — with new flushability tests, innovations in flushable products and a “do not flush” label symbol for products not made to be flushed.

What’s the solution?

Still, the question remains: Is it possible to innovate and educate around this issue? Or will it take mechanical solutions? There is probably no answer that applies to every clean-water plant. However, always the optimist, and perhaps naive in believing in people’s basic intelligence and good intentions, I keep coming down on the side of education. Here’s why.

First off, mechanical solutions, while potentially effective, cost money to install, operate and service. And wipes can cause problems well upstream of plant headworks and lift stations, in sewers, in laterals and even in household piping. Installing special screens and grinder pumps seems to me a bit like running up a white flag of surrender, saying that people’s flushing behavior is what it is, like the doctor assuming my friend would not work on his blood pressure by exercising or changing his diet.

So then, what about making flushable wipes that really live up to the term? That’s great as far as it goes. But as noted by David Rousse, INDA president, some 93 percent of wipes are neither made nor marketed to be flushed. So making the remaining 7 percent of wipes more truly flushable only attacks a fraction of the problem (all kinds of wipes get flushed). And let’s not forget that people also flush things like paper towels, feminine hygiene products and other non-dispersibles, none of them exactly beneficial to collections and treatment system operations.

Is labeling products with a “do not flush” symbol as easy to understand as the “no smoking” icon? Fine, but no matter where you put it on a package, will consumers heed it, even if they see and understand it? How much attention, really, do we pay to the packages for the products we buy? We recognize the packaging of a familiar brand, but we don’t read the package.

Simple, simple, simple

Now, even if you grant all the above (and maybe you won’t), you can easily argue that many public education campaigns promoting all kinds of behaviors have been tried and have failed. They can be expensive, and they run up against the proven difficulty of getting people to change comfortable habits. Look at how long it took to get people to use seat belts in their cars. And even then it took laws and actual penalties to drive the message home.

So, why do I think education can work in this case? Because the message is so incredibly simple and the change in behavior so small. Any number of simple messages and slogans can work. One popular message is: “The toilet is not a trash can.” San Francisco uses a campaign based on the three Ps: Flush nothing except Pee, Poop and Paper.

These programs have the virtue of looking beyond wipes to include the many other things that don’t belong in toilets, sewer pipes or treatment plants. Hammer on the point hard enough and many or most people eventually will respond, especially if they’re told that indiscriminate flushing comes back to bite them through higher operating costs that jack up their water and sewer fees.

One can argue that the trouble with education isn’t that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has not been tried with enough persistence and conviction. Of course, education will never get everyone on board. But can it make enough of a dent so that more radical measures, like adding mechanical equipment, become unnecessary? I would like to think so.

All together now

So, start with a heavy dose of education. Add improved products and better on-label disposal instructions. And hold mechanical solutions in reserve to be deployed if needed. Seems like a sound approach to me. What do you think? Share your thoughts by sending me an email to I will respond, and we’ll print selected comments in a future issue.


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