Stop Flushing “Flushables”!

Stop Flushing “Flushables”!
Robert Villée, executive director of Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority, and his operators have taken the "flushables" debate into their own hands, performing tests on various wipe products.

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Flushables, as they’re inaptly called in consumer lingo, continue to rear their ugly head and the public is slowly taking notice. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean everyone heeds the warning. 

“We’ve worked to increase communication with the manufacturers and to improve our public communication efforts,” says Scott Firmin, Portland Water District director of wastewater services. “It is not a difficult issue to explain; the problem seems to be getting the attention of consumers.” 

News stories are popping up left and right, telling consumers “Do Not Flush.” 

Cynthia Finley, National Association of Clean Water Agencies director of regulatory affairs, agrees that this is a work in progress. “I hope the increased media will make people more aware of their sewer systems and what happens to things after they flush them down the toilet,” she says.  

Laidback ratepayers

The issues are more prevalent today than ever, but people seem to be igorning warnings, probably because they don’t understand the overall issue. Maybe the public’s lackadaisical attitude and need for convenience – simply flush a wipe instead of disposing in the trash – has taken over? 

No doubt these are questions you ask yourselves every time your workers clean “flushable” wipes from pump stations and bar screens. 

The news – good or bad depending which side of the argument you’re on – is that INDA/EDANA have released a third edition of the Guidance Document for Assessing Flushability of Nonwoven Disposable Products

However, wastewater industry professionals are voicing concerns over the new guidelines. “The third edition guidelines are certainly an improvement over the previous edition, but I think we still have some more work to do on them,” Finley says. 

“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens because I think with all the media attention people are becoming more aware of it and will, I hope, stop flushing so many wipes down the toilet,” she continues. “But at the same time there’s such a marketing push right now from all these new types of wipes that I don’t think were on the market years ago, or certainly there wasn’t so much marketing for them.” 

Good, bad, ugly

Rob Villée, executive director of Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority in Middlesex, N.J., can’t agree more. “We don’t support it,” he says, noting that the third edition guidelines lack the proper language needed to stop nondispersibles from being labeled as flushable. “Manufacturers are basically claiming faux flushability.” 

Villée agrees there are good things that came out of the third edition, but he says there is still work to be done for the wastewater industry to fully support it. “There needs to be very good ‘Do Not Flush’ labeling on baby wipes and other products that are never designed to be flushed,” he says. “If you look at the market right now, about 75 percent of those products don’t have any labeling, or very small labeling or labeling that’s hidden under a flap or comes off with the outer wrapper. The third edition gives manufacturers until 2015 to correct all those. And it’s still only voluntary.” 

Villée and the Plainfield operators have taken matters into their own hands, performing tests on various wipe products with a custom-made slosh box (much larger than the one required by INDA/EDANA for testing) to dispute the new guidelines and raise awareness. 

“We started testing the wipes because we were kind of curious whether any of them would dissolve in under three hours, which is the new test limit,” Villée says. “The old test limit was six hours. Six hours in a lot of sewer systems means that stuff is on its way to the landfill already. 

“The INDA/EDANA slosh box uses two liters of water and rocks back and forth,” he continues. “It’s about 4 inches high, 18 inches long and 12 inches wide. That little amount of water creates a wave that breaks and pounds these wipes. It’s going at almost 30 rpm so as it goes back and forth these wipes are being hit about once a second with this crashing wave. 

“It takes a lot of physical force to break apart most of these wipes. The INDA/EDANA slosh box was alleged to be designed to simulate a sewer,” he says. “None of us have seen that kind of action in our sewers. And if we did, we’d have all sorts of other issues like odors.” 

The slosh box his operators built uses 12 liters of water, a 600 percent increase compared to the guidelines testing unit. “We just started dumping more water in to see how much water it would take to smooth out the waves,” Villée says. “We had to build a bigger box that creates enough depth but also keeps the wipe in motion. The wipe traverses back and forth over a period of time and it is constantly being pulled one way or the other. It’s probably still more violent than sewer systems, but I think it’s a representative test because the wipe will remain in motion in our sewer system. We found that wipes that would pass the INDA/EDANA test would be floating around 10, 15, even 20 hours later in our box.” 

Villée says the in-house testing clearly indicates these wipe products are still not disintegrating enough to be labeled as “flushable.” 

Straight A’s

The new INDA/EDANA guidelines outline that products only need to lose 25 percent of their mass to pass the test. “I would have been a straight-A student if I only had to get 25 percent right on my tests,” Villée says.

“The products don’t even have to break into pieces,” he continues. “Some of the product just has to slough off enough that when you dry it all out again and weigh it, it has lost 25 percent of its mass. That’s what it takes to pass the industry’s dispersion test. Beat the crap out of it for three hours and it only has to lose 25 percent of its mass.”

This disagreement among the wastewater industry, testing entities and product manufacturers isn’t losing momentum anytime soon, but hopefully increased media coverage about nondispersibles will raise enough eyebrows to slow the damage being done to our nation’s sewer systems, pump stations and wastewater treatment facilities.

“Ultimately, my belief (based on some of the information from manufacturers’ experts) is that if a product does not readily disperse then it should not be flushed,” Firmin adds. “My sense is a lot of work remains before we reach that goal, but we are moving in the right direction with awareness and our ongoing collaboration with the manufacturers of these products.”

How can the wastewater industry get INDA/EDANA to listen? What are you doing to increase awareness about wipe products? Leave a comment below.



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