CWEA panel discussion to address nondispersibles

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Minimizing associated costs and damage to collection systems, pump stations and treatment plants from nondispersible wipes is a growing concern among municipalities and wastewater treatment facilities. This year’s California Water Environment Association Annual Conference, held Wednesday, April 17 to Friday, April 19, will address this issue of nondispersibles with a panel discussion led by industry professionals. 

Moderator Jeff Moeller of the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and CWEA conference committee member Alec Mackie organized the panel discussion. The discussion will be led by Bob Domkowski of Flygt (Xylem); Scott Kelly of JWC Environmental; Nick J. Arhontes, P.E., of the Orange County Sanitation District; along with Steve Ogle, a representative from the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA). 

“We’ll go over the top issues and questions for 50 minutes and then there will be a Q-and-A session,” says Mackie. “Nick is the agency representative and a recognized subject matter expert, Bob is representing pump technology, Scott is representing screen technology, and we’re working with Steve at INDA to present what they’re doing to improve the technology of the nonwovens, customer education, improved labeling and the big one is third-party testing to prove more rapid dispersibility.” 

The panel, titled “Can the Wastewater and Nonwoven Industries Innovate Our Way Out of the Nondispersibles Problem?,” is just one of nearly 200 training sessions at the CWEA annual conference in Palm Springs, Calif. Anyone that is registered can join the discussion, or attendees can register for one day. This will be the first year for the discussion on nondispersibles, which is part of the Cutting Edge Technology Seminar. 

“We took a page from WEF focusing on innovative technology because everyone is under such pressure to do more with less and we need to be pushing wastewater equipment and wipe manufacturers to deliver and prove what they’re saying,” says Mackie. “The more pressure we put on manufacturers to deliver, the more likely it is they’ll deliver a breakthrough. We think it’s a good opportunity for manufacturers to show off and agency customers to really ask them the tough questions.”

The issue of “flushable” items that do not rapidly disperse in the sewer system has been a hot topic for some time. “The first state organization that started to acknowledge or take this disposables or flushables issue to heart was the Maine Wastewater Control Association,” says Domkowski. 

Domkowski will offer his knowledge on the options pump technology can bring to the table in solving the problem. “I’m bringing the perspective of the pumps supplier in that there is an answer that exists on the pumping side,” he says. “I’m bringing the story of pump’s success. The two things to come along with innovative pump technology are sustained high hydraulic efficiency and a significant reduction in maintenance costs.” 

The panel discussion will also bring the concerns of education versus technology to the forefront. “Education is one of the legs, but it’s not the full answer,” says Domkowski. “Ideally, we all preach education as the number one. Hopefully that does do enough. Even if it reduced it by 20 percent, that’s great. I don’t know if that’s enough to stem the tide because it’s really swung so far in one direction.” 

Arhontes has done a lot of research with others nationally on the issue and plans to offer his perspective on the problem and solutions. “Improved public and consumer education and truth in labeling are the most important for the products and the consumer,” he says. “Secondarily, would be adding more machinery we will need to handle the debris if the education and the labeling process don’t work. The ratepayers’ costs will continue to rise as they throw more debris in the sewers instead of the trash.” 

All involved in the panel discussion agree that support from the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry is essential. “I think the number one innovation is that INDA comes up with a product that is truly dispersible,” says Domkowski. “If there is a true dispersible product that the substrate breaks down in a reasonable amount of time, then all this goes away. And everyone in the nonwoven manufacturing industry has to adopt that substrate product. I believe that we all look forward to such advancements.” 

Arhontes agrees that the nonwoven products play a major role in solving or at least minimizing the effects. “Product re-engineering of the substrates of these nondispersible products is extremely important,” he says. “The wastewater industry in the U.S. is going to push hard for the re-engineering of the substrates so they break down more rapidly as they’re supposed to. Our associates in Europe are starting to accomplish this so we know it can be done. We also now have a website ( to educate others that want to reduce their costs and problems. 

“I think it’s a challenge and it will take some time, but the best we can do is start using a uniform message. This is a hot-button issue for many wastewater utilities so I think we’ll get a good turn out.” 

Ogle will bring extensive consumer studies and data gathered by INDA to the discussion. He also believes everyone involved needs to agree on the same problem in order to find a common solution. “This panel discussion presents an opportunity,” he says. “There’s lots of information and data that’s been collected that needs to be brought to light. I think this is a good opportunity to do that and get everybody on the same page. I realize that most of the wastewater people see it as a problem, and it is for them, for costs and potential health problems. But the discussion is an opportunity to resolve it. It’s going to take everyone working together focused on the same common problem.” 


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