Pre-moistened personal wipes labeled as “flushable” — popular with potty-training toddlers and other consumers looking beyond traditional toilet paper — soon might have to meet new government rules for toilets in the nation’s capital.
Under legislation passed unanimously Tuesday by the D.C. Council, wipes marketed as “flushable” would have to abide by new standards that the city and its sewer agency would set for how quickly they break apart post-flush. If Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signs the legislation, the city would be the first in the nation to regulate the definition of flushable, experts for both the sewer and wipes industries say.
Officials for D.C. Water and other U.S. sewer utilities say such wipes have rapidly become a growing problem since 2008, when their popularity took off. Other flushable products quickly followed, including pop-off scrubbers for toilet-cleaning wands.
Sewer utilities say the wipes jam pumps, break equipment and require machinery to use more energy. They also collect fats, oils and grease that some restaurants and residents pour down drains — to sewer agencies’ additional dismay — and form large “fatbergs” that clog pipes and send raw sewage backing up into basements and overflowing into streets and rivers.
The problem costs U.S. utilities between $500 million and $1 billion annually, industry officials say. D.C. Water said it spends more than $50,000 a year to clear such clogs, in addition to the $100,000 it can cost for major repairs, such as when pump stations fail.
“We know they’re contributing to backups,” said George S. Hawkins, D.C. Water’s general manager. “People think by using products labeled ‘flushable’ that they’re relieving the problem, when they’re actually making it worse.”
The wipes industry says the legislation would make it impossible for flushable wipes now available in the United States to continue to be sold in the city. The industry also framed the legislation as a privacy battle, taking out newspaper ads urging, “Keep the D.C. Council out of your bathroom.”
Dave Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, said the D.C. law would set an unreasonable standard for how quickly the wipes must break apart. The law likely would backfire, he said, because toilet users would increasingly turn to baby wipes, which aren’t designed to be flushed.
“The end result will be an effective ban on these products in the city,” Rousse said. “The challenge is that the consumer’s need for supplemental cleansing won’t go away.”
The wipes that are clogging and jamming sewer systems, he said, are those that aren’t designed to be flushed, such as baby wipes, disinfectant wipes and facial cloths.
“There’s no evidence that there’s a problem at all with wipes marketed as flushable,” Rousse said. “These wipes are incapable of causing those problems.”
Hawkins said D.C. Water and the city’s Department of Environment and Energy likely will base the city’s flushability rules on international standards because the United States has no national standard. Sewer utilities say the industry’s own standards are too lax.
The bill also would require wipes that aren’t marketed as flushable to have more conspicuous “Do not flush” labels.
The legislation, sponsored by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.
Cynthia Finley, of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, said that utilities hope the D.C. legislation will gain traction nationwide. Similar proposals have failed in Maine, California and New Jersey. A bill before the New York City Council appears to have stalled, Finley said.
“It’s okay to use a wipe,” Finley added. “Just put it in the trash can.”