WEF Update: Solving the Nondispersible Problem – WEF members work to address clogged pipes

WEF Leader Rob Villee discusses problems associated with nondispersibles. (credit: AP) News story link

By WEF Staff

Water resource recovery facility (WRRF) personnel continually must deal with items in the wastewater stream that simply don’t belong there. Called nondispersibles, these materials take many shapes, but as the number and variety of packages of wet wipes accumulate on store shelves, they also are accumulating in collection systems. The Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.), its members, and others have been working to solve the problem.

During the WEFTEC® 2013 Technical Session 610, “Wipe Out: Reducing the Burden of Wipes in the Pipes,” speakers and panelists representing the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.), the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA; Cary, N.C.), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA; Washington, D.C.), as well as manufacturers of disposable wipes and WRRF equipment provided a comprehensive view of the sources of contention that surround the topic.

The issue recently has garnered much attention from the press and public. However, according to session moderator Robert Villée, disagreement remains on many topics, such as the definition for dispersibility, culprits for clogs, the timeline for implementing solutions, tests to verify product flushability, and proper labeling.

“It’s a difficult issue, and there are a lot of nuisances,” said Villée, who is executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority (Middlesex, N.J.).

Fixing the nondispersibles problem “will require a coordinated national effort” in which WEF works with other organizations in both the water and wastewater arenas, said speaker Aubrey Strause, owner of Verdant Water PLLC (Scarborough, Maine). While the challenges seem daunting, WEF members and WEF Member Associations (MAs) have started working on the problem and have been gaining momentum.

WEF, NACWA, and the American Public Works Association (APWA; Washington, D.C) have approached the issue together. The three organizations are working to

  • build consensus on flushable standards,
  • educate the public about the problem, and
  • compile information on regional efforts in North America to solve the problem, Strause said.

“The next step will be for these national groups to lead the development of a definition of flushable,” she added.

The WEF Collection Systems Committee (CSC) Flushables Task Group has been working to solve the problem since 2010; and at WEFTEC® 2012, the WEF House of Delegates Nondispersibles Workgroup formed. “HOD is tasked with supporting the CSC by getting the MAs involved and supporting efforts to bring pressure on the nonwoven fabric industry to change business as usual,” said Hiram Tanner, DC Water (Washington) manager and WEF House of Delegates (HOD) Nondispersible Workgroup member. Tanner explained that the HOD workgroup is collecting and compiling information on incidents caused by nondispersibles into a database. The information will be used to help encourage legislators to act.

Independently, WEF CSC members and Delegates have been spreading the word on nondispersibles. They have been giving presentations at conferences and events across the country, as well as communicating with  government, manufacturer, and industry leaders.

Villée has even been working to put manufacturers’ flushable-product claims to the test. He has assisted in two field studies in Portland, Maine, to see if flushable products are dispersing in sewer lines, he said. In addition, he recently worked with Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority staff to test flushable-product claims. He found that flushable wipes took an average of 10 flushes before pieces started to break off; one piece remained intact for 100 flushes, he said.

In January 2014, the Maine Wastewater Control Association and INDA launched a public education campaign to raise awareness that baby wipes should not be flushed. Research will be conducted before and after the campaign to evaluate consumer behavior.

“We need to increase the awareness on the part of the consumer,” Strause said. The goal is to encourage user to follow the advice, “‘When in doubt throw it out’” she said.

To evaluate the campaign’s success, Scott Firmin, session speaker and director of wastewater services for the Portland Water District (Maine), will collect materials collected from the Westbrook Pump Station screen during a 1-hour timeframe. He will  document any changes in consumer behavior, Strause added. The $113,000 campaign focused on communications outreach and advertising will end and its success will be evaluated between March and April, she said.

In addition, WEF, NACWA, INDA, and APWA are forming a technical workgroup that will begin meeting in early 2014, said Cynthia Finley a speaker at the WEFTEC session and director of regulatory affairs at NACWA. The group will work on determining mutually acceptable definitions for terms, flushable guidelines, appropriate testing, and labeling for products, she said.

“The core need is to educate the public that things that don’t act like toilet paper should not be flushed,” Strause said. Working toward this goal and fixing the problem “will require a coordinated national effort” in which WEF works with other organizations in both the water and wastewater arenas, she added.

For more information see the following materials available online:

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Alec Mackie

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