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California investigates non-flushable wipes clogging sewer systems despite clear labeling symbols

#California investigates non-flushable wipes clogging sewer systems despite clear labeling symbols

31 Oct 2023 — The California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA), the Responsible Flushing Alliance and the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) have partnered to conduct a sewage collection study to help determine what is clogging sewer lines and equipment across the state. The collection found that most wipes flushed were labeled with the “Do Not Flush” symbol on the packaging. 

The organizations’ research adheres to California’s Proper Labeling of Wet Wipes law. 

“As a co-sponsor of the Proper Labeling of Wet Wipes law, we recognized the importance of educating Californians about not treating their toilets as a trashcan,” says Adam Link, executive director of CASA.

“We’ve all seen the huge rag balls pulled from clogged sewer lines, and through this study, we are taking a forensic approach by untangling those products and determining what is being flushed. These efforts will help inform our educational outreach.”

Flushed away
The two locations for the study include the Inland Empire Utilities Agency (IEUA) in Southern California and Central Contra Costa Sanitary District (Central San) in the greater San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California.

Four men wearing hard hats analyzing a wet wipe.California organizations are investigating the wipes consumers flush.The collections and forensic analysis are underway, with the “dry season” studies taking place this month and the “wet season” studies taking place this winter. If required, pending dry season final results outcome.

Preliminary collection study results from IEUA from October 11 to 12 and Central San from October 17 to 18 showed 94% of items collected were paper. Thirty-four percent of wipes found were labeled with the “Do Not Flush” symbol, and 7% were feminine hygiene products. Less than 1% of items collected so far were considered flushable wipes. The baby wipes and other non-flushable items were primarily found to be fully intact.

“With approximately 90% of wipes sold in the US being non-flushable, it makes looking for the ‘Do Not Flush’ symbol and following disposal instructions exceptionally important,” says Lara Wyss, president at Responsible Flushing Alliance.

“Non-flushable wipes are engineered to be different from flushable wipes. Non-flushable wipes are made with long, often plastic fibers that are meant to be strong. Flushable wipes are made with 100% plant-based fibers and are designed to break down in water, similar to toilet paper.”

The more unusual items collected so far include an action figure, hair weave, banana peel, a knee sock, rubber bands, cloth towels and a plastic toy frog. Also observed before the collection period started were other toys, syringes, condoms and underwear.

Clear labeling needed
According to the Proper Wet Wipes Labeling law, manufacturers of non-flushable wipes, including products such as baby wipes, cleaning wipes and makeup removal wipes that are primarily used in a bathroom setting, must include the “Do Not Flush” symbol on the front of the packaging.

The #FlushSmart consumer education campaign promotes the “Do Not Flush” symbol and provides information on what should and should not be flushed.Tampons lined up in front of a pink background.Consumers are shown to flush wipes and menstrual products with a “Do Not Flush” marker on the packaging.

“There is a lot of consumer confusion around what should or should not be flushed, and that’s where our consumer education campaign, #FlushSmart, comes into play,” asserts Wyss.

“We surveyed Californians about what they are flushing. The results showed that 20% mistakenly think all soft paper products can be flushed, and approximately 25% think baby wipes are flushable, which is never true. Even worse, 60% self-reported they flushed something they knew they shouldn’t.”

The organizations explain that each year, there are a significant number of sanitary sewer spills, and many are caused by introducing non-flushable products into the wastewater system.

Wastewater spills can be a potential threat to public health and the environment. It is estimated that local public agencies throughout California spend more than US$47 million annually on repairing wastewater treatment equipment and responding to sewer overflows caused by inappropriately flushing wet wipes.

Analyzing wipes
The researchers purchased over 150 wipe brands to make accurate identifications and types to compile a sample book for comparing markings and patterns.

“We also enlisted the expertise of technical leaders and material scientists from INDA member companies to lead the identification of wipes and other items. Using a magnifying glass, gently pulling at the fibers and examining them, and comparing them to our sample book, we inspect each item carefully,” explains Matt O’Sickey, INDA’s director of education and technical affairs.

Categories for items identified include all baby wipes and other non-flushable wipes outlined in the Proper Labeling of Wet Wipes law, feminine hygiene products, flushable wipes (moist toilet tissue), and non-flushable paper products (paper towels, wrappers).

Edited by Sabine Waldeck

This feature is provided by Packaging Insights’s sister website, Personal Care Insights.

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