Flushable Products: Silent Killer of the Utility’s Budget and Reputation

Flushable Products: Silent Killer of the Utility’s Budget and Reputation

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Protecting your collection and treatment works from sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and blockages has become more difficult over the last few years. Many products on the market today claim to be sewer or septic safe and flushable, but they clog lift station pumps. 

In fact, several utilities have proven that such claims of being “sewer and septic safe” are unfounded. We will review the current demand for flushable products, the effects to the utility, and steps for the municipality to address the issue. 

Consumer convenience 

Consumers today are more concerned with convenience than with what they’re putting down the toilet — items labeled as flushable products. INDA/EDANA define flushable as any product that can be flushed down a toilet without adversely impacting the wastewater infrastructure, operations, or the plumbing. 

Some facial wipes, kitty litter, and even diapers are labeled as flushable. Consumers see these labels as fact. However, the vast majority of these products have no proven basis to claim that by flushing them, they will not clog the pipes or pumps of the treatment system. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” leads to problems for the wastewater collection system. 

Effects on the utility 

Nonwoven materials, feminine hygiene products, condoms, and FOG have long been issues for industrial pretreatment and collections operators. Items that block the operations of lift station pumps primarily cause SSOs. This can happen when any item is large enough to block the cavity between the pump impeller and the casting, or materials weigh down the automatic float system, which causes pump malfunction. 

WEF recently reported the cost of collection system maintenance annually for a utility in Vancouver, Wash., as $78,000 for maintenance, $30,000 for electricity, and $900,000 for new pumps and equipment for a service area of about 200,000 people. These costs do not include any accidents or safety incidents that may have occurred from servicing the pumps. 

In addition to the expense, frequent SSOs also give a utility a poor reputation among its customers, county or city administrators, and regulatory agencies. Each overflow has a consequence whether it is traffic problems, environmental impacts, or public health issues. 

Associations attack the issue 

Local and national associations are doing their part to minimize the problems associated with products labeled as flushable. 

INDA and EDANA just released the third edition of the Guideline Document for Assessing Flushability of Nonwoven Disposable Products. All product manufacturers must meet these guidelines in order to label products as flushable. The guidelines also establish a “Do Not Flush” symbol for products not meeting the guidelines in order to prevent the disposal of products down the toilet that are unsuitable for the system. 

A series of seven core tests and technical assessments are used to determine a product’s flushability: 

  1. Toilet and Drainline Clearance Test
  2. Slosh Box Disintegration Test
  3. Household Pump Test
  4. Settling Test
  5. Aerobic Biodisintegration/Biodegration Test
  6. Anaerobic Biodisintegration/Biodegradation Test
  7. Municipal Sewage Pump Test 

A decision tree on the INDA website shows the process in action: 


The Maine Wastewater Control Association has an SOP for evaluating materials in pump clogs and sewer obstructions. This type of test gives a wastewater treatment facility a way to check the local lift stations that have frequent clogging problems.

In addition, the Southern California Alliance of Publicly Owned Treatment Works has created an industry-wide incident report form that they encourage all utilities to use as supporting documentation to this problem. This is a uniformed and centralized way to log the total labor cost, equipment repair or replacement costs and many more parameters related to the issue of flushable products.

As an example, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, WEF, and the American Public Works Association met with representatives of chain store Costco to discuss problems of wipes and asked them to improve their labeling. Costco was very receptive to the idea of providing clear and prominent logos to guide the customer to the proper disposal of wipes. This communication between manufacturers and associations is a valuable tool to addressing this issue on a broad scale.

New equipment fights back

Equipment manufacturers also play a major role in combating increased SSOs and clogged pump stations. For example, Xylem recently introduced the N series Flygt pumps to handle debris that would clog normal impellers by developing a new self-cleaning impeller design. 

In addition to the self-cleaning pumps, a utility can place macerators, bar screens, and grinders at the beginning of the treatment plant to collect and chop the obstructions that make it through the collection system. Then the products can be collected in a dumpster and removed as solid waste.

Industrial pretreatment

The U.S. EPA’s industrial pretreatment program gives a utility the necessary means to protect its system from discharge that will interfere, inhibit, or pass through the treatment plant. Under EPA regulation 40 CFR, part 403, a municipality has the legal authority to protect the treatment system, beginning with the end of pipe or process of the industrial user. Sewer use ordinances include specific wording stating an industry cannot discharge any material that would block the collection system.

Flushable products and items that are typically flushed (i.e. condoms and feminine hygiene products) can be regulated in an industrial pretreatment sewer use ordinance.

Public awareness

The real heart of the solution to the problems related to flushable and non-dispersible products in the collection system lies in public awareness. Even principles of economics state that without demand there will be no supply. Therefore, the municipality must effectively communicate the dangers of flushing damaging products down the toilet.

Workshops and events can effectively get the public in an atmosphere to receive and retain promotional information regarding safe flushing. Mascots, mottos and jingles can make the message more palatable for the audience. NACWA has a full resource page on its website for public awareness and even a song called Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes).

There are additional ways to inform the public:

  • Door Knockers – Hang educational material right on customers’ doors.
  • Internet – Include pictures, logos, and educational PowerPoint presentations on the utility website.
  • Public Service Announcements – Radio and TV spots can provide a dynamic forum for educational information and mascots or logos.
  • Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, and other social media services will give the promotion and educational material a modern and trendy feel to reach the digitally savvy customer.
  • Mail Stuffers – Traditional mail stuffers included with the utility bill with a message on how much the utility can save is a good way to reach every customer on your grid.

Though incorrectly labeled products and a lack of public awareness can be frustrating, a utility can protect itself. The goal is to stop SSOs, protect the collection system, and hold manufacturers of misleading products accountable for inaccurate labeling. Guidance and cooperation from associations, sewer use ordinance revisions, and public education are the ways to stop the problem.

Stay up-to-date on current INDA/EDANA guidelines.

About the Author

Sheldon Primus is a Class A licensed wastewater operator with more than 18 years of industry experience. He is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist, authorized OSHA outreach instructor, and holds master’s degrees in public administration and environmental policies. He has held positions as a laboratory operator, chief operator, plant superintendent, safety and compliance officer, and industrial pretreatment coordinator.

Primus is CEO of Utility Compliance Inc. based in Port St. Lucie, Fla., which helps utilities in industrial pretreatment and risk management program compliance, water and wastewater CEU training, as well as occupational safety program development and OSHA outreach training for general industry and construction. He is also an online adjunct instructor for the Environmental Science Department at Florida Gateway College. He can be reached at sheldon@utilitycompliance.net or 888/398-0120.


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