The Wipes Problem: Are Mechanical Solutions the Ultimate Answer?

Product standards? Education? Grinding? What will solve the wipes problem? Clean-water agencies and wipes industry groups have differing perspectives.

The battle over wipes in sewers continues unabated.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies is working with state and regional partners to explore dealing with the issue through legislation. The wipes industry association (INDA) and allies have created the Responsible Flushing Alliance to address “the true causes of clogging and debris accumulation problems in the wastewater infrastructure” and to advocate solutions through consumer education and responsible product labeling.

Meanwhile, clean-water utilities struggle with buildups of wipes (and, in fairness, other nondegradable items) in their sewer systems, pump stations and treatment plants. No one questions whether a problem exists. The contention in part revolves around whether some wipes are flushable, what that term means in practice and how wipes packaging should be labeled. 


I bring perhaps an unusual viewpoint to the issue. If not for my wife, I probably would go through my earthly existence never having purchased a single wipe. I find their price-to-value ratio severely out of whack — old-fashioned rags, cheap washcloths and the occasional paper towel do me just fine.

When my wife uses wipes, she drops them in the trash — we’re well-informed consumers by virtue of my role with this magazine and our ownership of a septic system.

On these pages, I have advocated for education as the real solution, because if everyone flushed only the three Ps of pee, poo and (toilet) paper, there would be no wipes in our sewer systems. That of course is a gigantic “if,” and to cling to it is surely naïve. From where I stand, it’s also naïve to think the solution lies in flushability standards and the proper labeling of products.


How many of us pay attention to the packaging of familiar items beyond the type and brand? I can guarantee I have never looked for or noticed any flushable versus nonflushable labeling on a wipes container. In this respect I’m probably no different from most consumers. How many of us religiously “read and follow label directions” on things we buy routinely?

The wipes industry is fond of citing a 2013 study that analyzed sewer system screenings and found that only about 8% of items on screen clogs could be identified as wipes marketed as flushable. The rest consisted of paper towels (47%), baby wipes (18%), feminine care items (13%) and household wipes for hard-surface cleaning and disinfecting (14%). The wipes in this group were neither designed to be flushable nor marketed as such. 

Therefore, goes the reasoning, flushable wipes are not the issue, and things would be far better if people flushed only flushable wipes. But don’t try selling that to clean-water agencies or, for that matter, many plumbing professionals. Their experience tells them that even so-called flushable wipes contribute to clogging problems.


I believe INDA is sincere in saying its members are working to resolve the problem. After all, it’s in the industry’s interest to do so for the protection of its products and markets. Notably, the industry touts a seven-part test that wipes must pass to earn a “flushable” label. The problem, though, is not as simple as labeling products. If it were that simple, then surely clean-water agencies’ education campaigns under slogans like “The Toilet Is Not a Trash Can” and “No Wipes in the Pipes” would be universally effective. They’re not.

We’re dealing with human nature, with consumers who have variable levels of education, and with people who have busy lives and multiple priorities that don’t include scrutinizing the labels on wipes containers. If some wipes are labeled as flushable and others not, wipes of both kinds will continue to get flushed. Accuracy in labeling may help, but it will not make the critical difference.


So, what’s the bottom line? Again, from where I sit, wipes producers can help by refining their products so that wipes marketed as flushable truly are — so that they disintegrate in the pipes at rates as close to toilet paper as technically possible.

Clean-water agencies can help by putting more money and effort behind campaigns to educate consumers on what they should and should not flush. This could include targeting areas of the system where wipes and other nondegradable items are the most prevalent. It could also include reporting explicitly how much improper flushing adds to collection and treatment costs on an annual, per-household basis — make it a pocketbook issue.

Ultimately, though, the solution may end up being mechanical. No amount of education and no amount of product labeling will make people almost unanimously change their bad behaviors. There will always be wipes, paper towels, rags and other troublesome items in the sewers.

So, grind them up. Chopper and grinder pumps are available in multiple styles, sizes, configurations and price points. They work. Put them in and let them do their job. Or, in the words of an old children’s book about a trash collection crew, “Start the chewer-upper, Sam!”    


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