The Kimberly-Clark Settlement Marks a Turning Point for Wipes Products

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After years of maintenance headaches for wastewater professionals, the recent settlement of a class-action lawsuit between Charleston (South Carolina) Water System and Kimberly-Clark Corp. is a significant victory for the wastewater industry.

As part of the settlement, the company agreed to make its Cottonelle flushable wipes compliant with wastewater industry flushability standards by May 2022, and also agreed to improve the labeling of its wipes products to clarify for consumers what is and isn’t safe to flush.

Michael Saia, public information administrator for Charleston Water System, recently talked with Treatment Plant Operator about the settlement and its implications. The full interview will be available to read in the August edition of the magazine.

Saia says the settlement is a huge win for the clean-water industry in an ongoing war it had been losing for years. “The damage to our infrastructure and the environment has only increased along with the sales of so-called flushable wipes,” he says. “Wastewater professionals nationally have been fighting wipes manufacturers and retailers since day one without success. This settlement sets a critical benchmark for flushable wipe dissolvability and product labeling standards.”

According to Saia, Kimberly-Clark is already about 10% away from meeting the Specification 3 Disintegration Test with its Cottenelle flushable wipes, and is actively working to meet the May 2022 deadline to further improve the wipes to meet the standards. The company is also going to make the “do not flush” symbol on the non-flushable wipes packaging more prominent by increasing its size, putting it on the front of the packaging, and using colors that contrast with the background.

In a statement released to TPO, Kimberly-Clark said, “We are proud to be the only flushable wipe to have the confidence and support of the wastewater community and look forward to our partnership to ensure that Cottonelle flushable wipes continue to meet and exceed various flushability standards and specifications.”

How Charleston got involved

In October 2018, Charleston Water System was experiencing SSOs across its collections system due to wipes blockages at its wastewater treatment facility. “We put together a series of five social media posts that showed the impact to our staff, including the divers who were forced to deal with this totally preventable blockage, in the dark, in raw sewage, working with their hands,” says Saia. “It really humanized the issue we were facing.”

As a result of that social media effort, the utility received regional and national media coverage, soon becoming the most visible wipes-plagued utility in the nation. “Our wipes issues were the same as everybody else’s, but we found a way to get it on the news across America and across the world through a little creativity and a willingness to participate in every media opportunity that came our way,” says Saia. “That is how we rose to prominence in the world of issues related to wipes.”

Soon after, the utility was approached by the Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd law firm in New York. “They were litigating another class-action suit about wipes, and they realized that our national visibility would make us a very strong lead plaintiff. So we engaged with them, and then we added Aqualaw, a firm we have used for various legal issues in the past. It has been a highly effective partnership. It was about striking while the iron was hot with an experienced and well placed legal team.”



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