Responsible Flushing Alliance: Part Value, Part Smokescreen

The Responsible Flushing Alliance teaches about wipes from the paper goods company perspective. That doesn’t mean its messages lack value.

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I’ve always been suspicious of big-business-sponsored coalitions with innocent-sounding names that advocate for an industry’s side on controversial issues.

So my hackles went up a few years ago when I learned about the Responsible Flushing Alliance, a group representing the wipes industry, whose products have been and remain a significant source of blockages in sewers and other problems in wastewater facilities.

Groups like these generally put the most positive spin possible on a product or practice that allegedly or actually does some kind of harm. They do this in part by manipulating facts and statistics in hopes that less-than-discerning people will accept their point of view or at least soften their opposition.

In my opinion, the Responsible Flushing Alliance does this to some degree. At the same time, I give the alliance credit for offering some information and advice that’s useful to consumers and potentially helpful to clean-water agencies dealing with wipes-related issues.

I also believe the alliance (see the list of members at flushsmart.org) is sincere in wanting to work with clean-water utilities to solve problems. After all, it’s in the industry’s interest to fix things voluntarily rather than face product marketing restrictions, regulations or lawsuits.

A bit of smokescreen

That said, let’s start with where I think the alliance’s arguments mislead. On the homepage of the website there’s a graphic headlined “The Real Problem.”

The text below says, “Studies show that 98% of materials that clog equipment at wastewater treatment plants are nonflushable, such as baby wipes, paper towels, feminine hygiene products, cleaning wipes and other trash not designated to be flushed.”

I have no reason to doubt this — trash flushed down toilets cause sewer systems clogs long before wipes became widely popular household products. Well, then, if the data is accurate, what’s wrong with the statement?

It’s misleading because no one alleges that flushable wipes are the problem. The “real problem” is wipes in general, and that includes nonflushable wipes that are labeled on packaging as flushable because they don’t quickly disintegrate in the wastewater stream.

Here’s the breakdown

Let’s look at the data a little more closely. A graphic on the website refers to an analysis of debris collected on bar screens in a pump station in Jacksonville, Florida. The data found five types of debris:

  • Nonflushable baby wipes, 37%
  • Nonflushable feminine hygiene products, 19%
  • Nonflushable paper, 28%
  • Nonflushable household wipes, 15%
  • Flushable wipes, 1%

In other words, 57% of the debris items collected were wipes. That is a significant problem that the wipes industry seems to be trying to downplay.

Keys to progress

That aside, the industry has acknowledged that there are three key steps toward addressing the wipes problem:

Make more products truly flushable according to a set of agreed-upon standards

Clearly label packaging so consumers can tell which wipes are flushable and which are not

Educate consumers not to flush wipes that are not labeled and certified as flushable

I believe, based on my exploration of this topic over recent years, that at least some industry players are making good-faith efforts on these three fronts.

What’s to like?

Here are some features of the Responsible Flushing Alliance website that I consider helpful. Several graphics provide a basic education in wipes and their characteristics. For example, one enumerates four basic differences between flushable and nonflushable wipes.

Another describes the qualities of wipes designed for different purposes: baby wipes, anti-bacterial cleaning wipes, spa wipes, medicated wipes, moist novelettes, facial wipes and flushable wipes. All this is useful information for consumers to have.

Two videos on a “Myth vs. Fact” page are also noteworthy. One light-hearted presentation shows several people being quizzed on which materials can be flushed and which should not be. The other takes viewers on a tour of a 110 mgd wastewater treatment plant in Columbus, Ohio. The video shows headworks screens capturing wipes and other paper items.

And then there’s kid stuff: activity books, worksheets, art projects, puzzles, games and more. Reaching kids on issues like this is always good, and they can be great influences on their parents and so make entire households into more responsible flushers.

Who sees it?

The proof of the pudding is who sees and so benefits from the information on this website. The reality is that initiatives like the Responsible Flushing Alliance typically are not very well funded. For example, you don’t see these messages being translated into advertising on popular TV programs, websites and other venues. At least I have not seen anything of the sort.

Still, if I were a clean-water operator, or a public education coordinator at a clean-water utility, I wouldn’t mind referring people in my community to flushsmart.org. It’s not perfect, but it could help get some important points across.



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