At this year’s Annual Conference in San Diego a room packed with wastewater professionals listened intently as a panel of experts provided updates on wipes, rags, pills and other debris getting flushed down the toilet. What’s being done to bring this nightmare to an end?
The panel of experts agreed we saw some major breakthroughs in 2015. We called the experts together for the CWEA-CASA “What 2 Flush” Summit meeting. They all pointed to glimmers of hope for real solutions that can help us dig out from under this mountain of trash people are flushing.
The biggest breakthroughs include a decision by the US Supreme Court on May 26, 2015 not to take up an appeal of Alameda County’s Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance, rendering it legal for counties all over the country to require pharmaceutical manufacturers to set up and pay for the collection of unwanted medications.
On the flushable wipes front, manufacturers in the Fall of 2014 signed an agreement to work closer with wastewater associations on new flushability guidelines and a “product stewardship initiative.”
Beginning of the End for the Wipes Problem?
For Nick Arhontes, Director of Facilities Support Services at the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD), resolving the non-dispersible wipes challenge has always been a team effort. Arhontes has studied the issue for five years and has brought together sewer experts from coast-to-coast as well as bringing other associations into the discussion.
In 2013 his agency, OCSD, unveiled to the public the “3Ps” message about what to flush – pee, poo and toilet paper. And that’s it! The agency went on to develop a popular public website and campaign called What 2 Flush. The logo and campaign materials are available at www.what2flush.com for other agencies to use in their regions. The 3Ps message has caught on and can now be heard from sewer agencies throughout North America and even in the UK and Australia.
During his presentation, Arhontes focused on three key initiatives to resolve the wipes issue once and for all – reengineering wipes so they breakdown; using more natural fibers so they don’t cause environmental harm; and getting more sewer professionals involved in this issue. “We need you,” said Arhontes. He wants to see more data collected about pump clogs and spills to document the problems wastewater agencies are experiencing with nondispersibles. Arhontes also advocates more public outreach, particularly during the drought when people can save water by placing trash into a container instead of flushing it and wasting water.
Melody LaBella, the Pollution Prevention Program Coordinator at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, pointed to the introduction of a product (wipes) labeled and marketed as flushable has confused the public and opened enormous flood gates of trash entering our sewer systems.
“You have to keep in mind the confusion customers are facing,” said LaBella.
“They purchase one product labeled flushable and another product that looks exactly the same with a do not flush label and they end up flushing both of them. Consumers can’t tell the different.”
In March, LaBella was one of six wastewater representatives who met with wipes makers in Washington, DC to discuss new ways to collaborate. The meeting included representatives from the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the American Public Works Association (APWA) and INDA – an association of wipes manufacturers. After years of negotiating, LaBella was encouraged to see wipes makers reaching out to wastewater professionals to understand the problems and propose new solutions.
The panelists all agreed working with wipes makers is the best path forward, at least for now. LaBella highlighted other wipes efforts that our industry has tried but have failed:
- five legislative efforts in different states went nowhere
- several court cases were dismissed
- a public education pilot campaign in Maine found people will stop flushing baby wipes but only for a few weeks. When the ads stopped, people started flushing baby wipes again
In addition to the Product Stewardship Initiative, wastewater representatives are going to work with wipes makers on “flushability guidance document version 4” (aka GD4), according to panelist Rob Villee, a representative of WEF’s Technical Workgroup for wipes. Villee is a leading wastewater expert on wipes and works with his team at the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority (PARSA) in New Jersey. There he is the executive director and developed the “PARSA Potty” – a wipes test rig. The system runs wipes through a toilet and drain line to see how many flushes it takes before the wipe disperses. In one case it took 100 flushes.
Villee also sees reasons for hope. The GD4 working group includes representatives from the wastewater profession and the wipes sector and has already had two meetings. They are focusing on two of the seven tests used to determine if an INDA member can label their wipes as flushable. It looks like the acceptable window for dispersibility is about 30-60 minutes according to Villee.
Another positive sign for our profession is wipes innovation is rapidly improving according to Villee. In a demonstration he conducted during last year’s WEFTEC, he dipped a new type of flushable wipe into water and in less than 10 seconds the wipe dispersed. Almost like toilet paper. “It turns out a dispersible wet wipe is possible,” he said.
However, Villee warned the audience in blunt terms.
“Even if we get rid of all the products labeled ‘flushable’ the problem will not go away.”
He explained other debris is entering the system including lots of baby wipes, which Villee described as “indestructible squares of stretchy plastic.” They are made using a spunlace process which uses some plastic as a raw material. Because of that strength Villee said baby wipes are “the pump killers.”
News on the wipes front is changing so fast, Villee provided another update – click here to see his update.
Click the image to download the PDF