When Clean and Fresh Turns Into One Big Mess

Jan. 7, 2016

Millions of dollars are being lost by wastewater utilities in their effort to address a growing problem: so-called flushable wipes and other products that are not breaking down easily in the sewer system. Those millions of dollars wasted on a problem that is avoidable comes on the heels of a recession and the challenges presented by an aging infrastructure.

According to the National Associa­tion of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), utilities are spending money sending employees out to respond to overflows to clean such products out of pipes, pumps, and plants.

Although only human waste and toilet paper should be going down the toilet, people are flushing a host of harmful materials: wipes, paper towels, feminine hygiene products, dental floss, pharmaceuticals, and product additives such as triclosan. Fats, oils, and grease (FOG) are also being disposed of improperly down garbage disposals and in toilets. The wipe problem is three-pronged and involves wipes manufacturer responsibility, consumer behavior, and a wastewater utility infrastructure not equipped to deal with the challenge.

“It’s not so much the pipe material, but perhaps the age of the pipe and its condition,” says Cynthia Finley, NACWA’s director of regulatory affairs. “Certainly, older clay pipes can have a lot of root intrusion. You can have that happen in any pipe. The underground system isimperfect. Grounds shift, pipes crack, and tree roots get in, so then when you have obstructions, it makes it a lot easier for wipes and other things to get caught on those and start a clog.”

Different pumps will react differently based on the way they operate, their age, and the volume of material being handled, says Finley. “Wastewater collection systems and treatment plants are so variable throughout the country and there are many different types of conditions you can encounter,” she adds.

The challenge also is an inadvertent result of water conservation.

Finley points out that when high efficiency toilets first came out, “they didn’t necessarily flush things as easily, so there was a tendency for some people to not put too much down the toilet.”

Aubrey Strause, P.E., who owns Verdant Water in Scarborough, ME, says, “It’s only becoming more of a problem because in California, there are a lot of programs that incentivize residents to put in ultra-low-flush toilets.” People are no longer as cautious with what goes down, “which exacerbates the problem because there is less water pushing these products into the municipal sewer system or septic system.”

Today’s low-flow, high-efficiency toilets “have such good flushing power, you can get a ton of stuff down them and even if it doesn’t cause problems in the household system, it gets into the sewer system and the problems arise there,” says Finley.

In 2008, NACWA started hearing reports from public wastewater utilities, and in 2009 the complaints began to increase. “Our members asked us if we were doing anything on this issue,” says Finley. “We started working with the Water Environment Federation on it because their collection system committee had also been talking about the issue.”

In 2013, the group started to collaborate with INDA, the trade association representing the nonwoven fabrics industry, when it issued its third edition of its voluntary flushability guidelines.

“We sent a letter to them in 2013 disagreeing with their new flushability guidelines, which they published anyway at that point,” says Finley. “That started a more in-depth conversation with them to find some solutions.”

Not only are there not any viable solutions in sight, says Finley, but she says the problem is worsening. “There are so many people using wipes now in the bathroom setting, and flushing them, most likely because they don’t understand the difference between a wipe that will actually break apart in the sewer system or in their own household plumbing and when that won’t,” she says.

“Most baby wipes can’t even be ripped—they just stretch and stretch because they are made of plastic and they’re very strong,” she adds. “The flushable wipes usually pull apart a little bit more easily, but if you put them in water, stir them around and compare them to how toilet paper breaks up, you can easily see that the wipe doesn’t break up in the same way that toilet paper does.”

The clogging problem may start anywhere in the system. “There are definitely a lot of homeowners who have had problems in their own systems, which has led to several class action lawsuits going on now,” says Finley. “The good thing is that when it happens there, people react quickly with not flushing that stuff once their plumber tells them what the problem is. It’s an expensive lesson to learn, unfortunately.”

If they get out of the household pipes and make into the collection system, and on to a pump station, “they often get caught in the pumps. Especially if you add FOGs, it creates a huge mass of wipes,” says Finley. “Then going all the way to the treatment plant, every piece of equipment in the treatment plant can end up getting wipes on it.”

At first, NACWA officials believed wipes to be a problem with smaller systems that have smaller pipes and smaller pumps. “Now we’re finding it in bigger pieces of equipment, too,” says Finley, referencing New York City. “Initially, we thought it was just the collection system, but they’re making it all the way into the treatment plant now.”

Mess resulting from wipes clogging a sewer line

The Problem: Case Studies
Strause—whose company provides services in stormwater management and wastewater infrastructure asset management and who also is an associate with Fuss & O’Neill, a civil and environmental engineering consulting firm—took an interest in the problem of wipes clogging wastewater systems in 2009 when she became involved in the Maine Wastewater Control Association, now known as the Maine Water Environment Association.

Maine’s wastewater facilities and collection systems operators would complain to her about an ongoing problem with ragging (when wipes clog the system).

“They had to take their pumps down all of the time, taking out piles and piles of what they were calling rags, and it took a little while for me to realize they’re talking about different types of wipes,” says Strause.

The association conducted a study in early 2011 and of the 58 responses from across the state, 90% indicated they were having problems and 40% indicated that they have had more than 10 incidents in the previous year. The estimated cost of addressing it was nearly $600,000 or an average of $37,500 per town.

As the wipes market has grown, the challenges associated with them in wastewater systems have increased, says Strause, adding that the problem is not just domestic, but global, as operators in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Middle East are all working on the issue.

Strause has compiled a Google map dotted with all of the different areas in the US that have reported the problem.

To understand the problem, utilities have to dig deep into the material. Due to limited data on the nature of the interferences, the Maine Wastewater Treatment Association has a standard operating procedure (SOP) for helping utilities evaluate materials in pump clogs and sewer obstructions in order to assist the industry in understanding the extent of the problem, characterize the materials responsible for the interferences, and determine how to ultimately solve the problem.

Details on the SOP are available at www.mewea.org/PumpClogSOP.pdf.

In Maine 
Portland, ME, spent $4.5 million installing screens in two pump stations.

“We estimated based on the capital costs of those screens, and the labor and disposal of the wipes, we were paying $800 per dry pound of wipes,” notes Michelle Clements, a spokeswoman for the Portland (ME) Water District.

Scott Firmin, director of Portland (ME) Wastewater Services, says the reason for the expenditure for the pump upgrades is that one of the stations normally pumps about two million gallons per day, but during wet weather, the flows can increase.

“That pump station is designed to operate at about 15 million gallons per day,” he says. “That required three pumps running. The pumps would plug one after another and we could only keep two pumps running very inefficiently. Instead of pumping 15 million gallons, we would only be pumping something like nine million gallons. That extra six million gallons was overflowing directly into the water. When these materials interfere with a gravity sewer, a pump station, a pump, a treatment plant, or even a residential home septic system, they will cause sewage to go someplace where it wasn’t intended to go. That’s normally the environment.”

In Maine, it was going into the Penobscot River. “The goal of the Clean Water Act is to make waters so they are swimmable, fishable, and recreation can occur,” says Firmin. “If we’re discharging raw sewage into them, it makes it difficult to meet the objectives of the Clean Water Act.”

“We’re a regional wastewater provider and the pump station was in Westbrook, ME, so we were really focused on trying to bring about change for that pump station where there are about 6,000 users,” says Clements. “We did some studies there to find out what actually was being flushed.”

Wipes are a product that is different than anything else that existed historically, says Firmin. “We have raised this as an issue that our customers ought to be aware of because there are also instances where these products can clog a lateral line and that has a more immediate impact on that customer,” he says. “Until such time as there is a flushable product that is also degradable in water the way standard toilet paper is, it’s going to be a problem for utilities.”

In New Hampshire
Non-flushable products have been creating issues in Keene, NH, for “quite some time,” notes Eric Swope, industrial pretreatment coordinator for the Keene Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In addition to whatever costs Keene has incurred from inappropriate items in the sewer system itself, “there are additional costs from wipes and other items plugging pumps and catching on impellers and other equipment at the wastewater treatment plant,” adds Swope.

“In recent years, we have gotten much better at addressing non-flushables and other blockage-creating problems,” says Swope. “In addition to our public education efforts on non-flushables and grease, we have addressed this by improving our sewer cleaning and de-rooting and have done some replacement of old sewers, all of which helps to keep things flowing.”

Keene is one of many New Hampshire wastewater utilities that have been struggling with the problem of wipes clogging, notes Ray Gordon, septage coordinator for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. “Years ago, you would have a little bit of stuff flushed down the drain and the pumps could handle most of it and occasionally there’d be a problem,” says Gordon.

New Hampshire notes many more clogging incidents as the number of wipe products enter the market, including baby wipes, make-up wipes, and cleaning wipes.

To help mitigate the problem, Gordon has joined efforts with Maine leaders. “There are only 1.5 million people in New Hampshire,” says Gordon. “We’re a small state and there are cities larger than us. Our resources are not what they would be in a huge metropolitan area, so we try to share the resources at the local level.”

Gordon distributes brochures from booths at public events and sends materials to New Hampshire municipalities to get them started on public education efforts over what to flush and not flush. “You either train people not to flush stuff down the drain or you upgrade the equipment,” he says. “If we can stop a few people from dumping some things down the drain, there is less going down and maybe it will lessen the problem. We incur the cost of printing a few brochures and hope for the best. The more that message is out there, the greater the chance someone will learn from it.

“I don’t think we’re going to stop people from flushing everything down the toilet. But certainly we can reduce it to a level where the towns don’t have to spend so much money replacing the equipment.”

Firmin says his organization started seeing pumps clogging on a more frequent basis more than 10 years ago. “The point of contention with the wipes manufacturers is their claim that there is a differentiation between products intended to be flushed and products not intended to be flushed,” he says. “Personally, I refer to them as flushed wipes because it doesn’t matter to me whether it was intended to be flushed or not—we find that if they clog the pump, it’s a problem.”

The “What the Flush?” game show was part of the Portland, ME, Water District’s campaign to educate local residents on what is safe to flush.

In Oregon
Clean Water Services is a county service district servicing about 550,000 people west of Portland, OR, in 12 cities and a larger unincorporated area. The service area includes substantial industrial centers, including Nike’s world headquarters and Intel’s largest regional operations.

Clean Water Services provides wastewater collection and treatment and surface water management, stream flow restoration, and stream corridor restoration, says Bill Gaffi, general manager.

Wipes have created problems in the area by clogging pumps. “On gravity lines that are older concrete lines where the aggregate has become exposed, it attaches to the line and it requires more frequent cleaning,” says Gaffi.

The problem has influenced some equipment selection that offers less tendency for ragging, says Gaffi. Clean Water Services has invested in new pumps that cost 10–20% more but are better equipped to handle wipe products. Managers say the overall cost is reduced by money saved on time invested in maintenance and repairs caused by clogs.

Gaffi says the wipes issue is “very similar in some respects to other topics we as an industry have to get our arms around. It’s when certain materials are introduced into the environment whether they are toxic or not. It would be a lot easier and more appropriate to keep them out of the environment rather than try to deal with them once they’re in the environment.”

The Buckman Wastewater Treatment Plant in Jacksonville, FL

In Florida
In Florida’s Miami-Dade County Water & Sewer Department, “we’ve experienced what I think a lot of utilities have in an increase in the problem of materials that form these rags—a combination of fibrous materials—that can be associated with the so-called flushable wipes,” says Doug Yoder, deputy director for operations.

The distinction between flushable and degradable is probably not a distinction that people make when they buy the products, says Yoder.

“They’re obviously assuming that if they are flushable, that should be inconsequential as far as the sewer system is concerned, but it turns out a lot of things you can flush down the toilet are not such good things to have in the system. It’s amazing what you find. We’ve encountered things as large as bedsheets.

“They may be flushable to the extent that they don’t get stuck in the toilet, but they do accumulate in the system and can result in overflows if the accumulation at the pump stations is not attended to in a timely fashion. Our operators would say that the flushable wipes are not made of a material that degrades in the system such as they easily pass through a pump.”

Yoder says the problem is noticeably worse in some pump stations. “We’re looking at pump impellers that are designed to be able to cut through these materials and convey them in a chopped-up form through the pumps to see if that helps to improve the situation,” he says. Yoder says this must be immediately addressed with equipment upgrades”because consumer behavior or producer responsibility hasn’t caught up,” adding that it’s difficult to quantify labor costs dealing with clogs caused by flushable wipes versus other items.

While some utilities operate their collection system largely on the basis of gravity, south Florida does not have that type of terrain. Miami-Dade has more than 1,000 pump stations in the 7,000 miles of sewer lines that move material to the treatment plants. “We probably experience it a lot more in the conveyance system than some of the other utilities do where the concentration would be at the plants rather than in the pump station,” Yoder says of the clogs. “We get some of it out where it clogs up the pump stations, but not all.”

Clogged equipment due to non-flushable material that has been flushed

More or Less Everywhere
The Orange County Sanitation District in California had conducted a study in 2012 on the dispersion of wipe products labeled as “flushable,” “biodegradable,” and “safe for sewer and septic systems.”

The study showed that toilet paper rapidly dispersed after 20 seconds, but the wet wipes do not break down after 24 hours, remaining intact and recognizable.

Non-flushable material that has been flushed

“The inability of products to disperse may adversely affect sanitary sewer systems, lift stations, and wastewater treatment plants,” staff advises.

Tracy Stevens, a lab tech at the Spokane (WA) Wastewater Treatment Plant, also has tested the products and created a video used in wastewater treatment plant outreach efforts nationwide that shows the products don’t break down. She also provides a DVD to interested utilities.

“If you think about smoking and littering and pollution in general, those have been extremely visible issues ever since I was a child and this is not a visible issue,” she says. “It’s complete invisibility once people flush unless their own home system backs up or someone they know has a back-up.”

Even if people are aware of the issue, “they may think ‘I’m just one person—this won’t make a difference’ or ‘I pay a lot for my utility bills and I’m not making a big difference in the cost of it.’ It takes everyone to stop doing it so the pumps stop getting clogged up and stopped having to be replaced and we stop having to devote massive labor hours to this.”

Consumer Behavior and Public Education
“We have seen in some of the surveys we have done that between 40 and 60% of people are using baby wipes for everything,” says Clements. “They’re not just using them for babies anymore. There’s an interest in the hygiene aspect; they’re easy and they’re convenient.”

NACWA’s Finley, a mother of four, acknowledges that wipes are convenient. “I use them for a lot of things I don’t need to use them for because they are just so darned convenient,” she says. “They are packaged, ready to go, and they work really well. My youngest just got out of diapers, but I still have baby wipes in the car and house.”

Although practices such as recycling, wearing seat belts, and the reduction in cigarette smoking have come about from “peer pressure,” Finley points out that monitoring public behavior with respect to flushing wipes down the toilet is trickier.

“I think that although the change will never be complete—there are always some things that are going to be flushed—it could be improved,” she says. “Maybe we’ll be bringing utilities down into spending thousands of dollars instead of millions a year to deal with it. That’s my hope. When you look at comments on articles that are posted online, you do see people talking about how they clogged up their household plumbing and will never flush anything like that down the toilet again or that they had no idea what happens to that stuff.”

Finley says there’s only been one study that’s demonstrated the effectiveness of public education: that study was done by INDA, which teamed up with the Maine Water Environment Association to do a professionally produced eight-week multimedia pilot public education program in early 2014 at a cost of $113,000. “They measured the amount of wipes and other materials coming into a pump station prior to the campaign and then they did it for about a month after the campaign as well to see if it made a difference,” says Finley.

The campaign was deemed successful, as the amount of material that was flushed into the system fell off “fairly dramatically” after the campaign, she says, adding that it’s proof that people do alter their behavior when they become aware.

Because of the cost of the campaign, Clements says she would have been disappointed if the utility hadn’t seen results, but after the campaign stopped, the amount of wipes being flushed shot up again. “For wastewater facilities, that kind of investment is not sustainable,” she adds.

Those results showed the wastewater treatment industry needs more than just getting out the message once or in a short time period, says Finley, adding that it must be sustained to “really change people’s behavior.”

It is possible, she says. Middle-aged, Finley says she remembers a time when no one wore seatbelts or recycled products. “Now, I wouldn’t dream of riding in a car without my seatbelts on and we feel funny if we have to throw away paper or a glass bottle if we can’t find a recycling bin for it,” she says. “Things can change. It takes time—maybe on a 20-year range, but we have to get started on this and get people to realize when you flush something down a toilet, it doesn’t disappear. It’s going through a sewer system to a treatment plant and eventually getting discharged into your lakes and rivers and oceans.”

While there are a host of other products being flushed, the focus is on wipes because they are marketed as flushable, says Finley. “To us as utilities, we really want to get to those wipes first,” she says. “We think the message needs to be brought out to the public as quickly as possible. We are working with the wipes industry on this. We have a product stewardship initiative. We’re starting to take a look at consumer education and better labeling of products.”

Part of the consumer behavior is attributable to the mass media, which promotes personal hygiene habits as Mehmet Oz has done on his program. “He was promoting these things and after realizing how big the problem was, he changes his mind and goes back to toilet paper,” says Finley, who appeared as a guest on one of his shows in which he announced his 180-degree turn and promoted moistening toilet paper with water instead.

Utilities are employing a variety of public education efforts to get the message out. They’ve become creative in their approaches, such as New Water in Green Bay, WI, which created a holiday video in 2014 in which staff members dressed up in holiday garb singing “O Love Your Pipes, Don’t Flush Those Wipes” to the tune of “O, Christmas Tree.”

The city of Keene, NH, worked with students at Keene High School to produce a public service announcement titled “Don’t Flush That.”

Swope compiled lyrics for the music video; the students put together the story line and scenes. Keene’s efforts demonstrate that a utility doesn’t have to invest a lot of money in educational efforts. It’s beneficial for the city and gives students a chance to develop multimedia skills in addition to being exposed to a message that they may incorporate into their own practices, and encourage other family members to do so, much like anti-cigarette smoking campaigns.

Keene has included educational inserts with Swope’s contact information into the water and sewer bills. Some people called him to discuss the problem, he says.

Swope also does targeted education efforts when field colleagues contact him after noting a significant amount of rags in a blockage on a specific street. “I’ll take a look at our sewer maps, see what is upstream of that and put together a list of houses in the immediate vicinity, especially for the smaller area being covered by the sewer,” he says.

Swope puts together a mailer informing the residents of the problem and the hazards that caused the blockage which may have resulted in an overflow and instructs them on what they can do to help out.

Although he can’t quantify it, since the educational efforts began, it seems like the number of blockages has decreased, notes Swope.

Clean Water Services’ educational efforts include a song titled “Don’t Flush the Baby (Wipes),” written and performed by Steve Anderson, a Clean Water Services water resources analyst, as well as posters and cartoons about the proper disposal of wipes.

“I think they’re having some impact,” says Gaffi. “We have a tremendous challenge in terms of accessing public attention. There’s such tremendous competition for eyeballs.”

Clean Water Services makes annual presentations to 4,000 fourth graders “in trying to get their help in getting attention and response from their parents as well,” notes Gaffi. “That’s been a pretty effective strategy.”

NACWA and INDA promote the slogan: “Toilets Are Not Trash Cans.”

Strause conducts a course for municipal wastewater operators that includes a hands-on session of testing dozens of wipes to determine which ones break down. Attendees discuss legislative efforts and why they fail, current class action suits, and getting out accurate public education messages.

“If we’re telling people to not flush wipes but what is showing up in our system is baby wipes, then we’re missing those opportunities,” she says. “The consumer doesn’t realize that they’re different products. The utilities have to focus their very limited resources and very limited education dollars on the right product and the actual culprit.”

Manufacturer Responsibility
When she learned of the problem with clogging by wipes, Strause says she thought the problem would be as easy to fix as instructing wipes manufacturers to stop labeling the products that are not flushable as flushable, and the ones not labeled as flushable should have a “do not flush”label on them.

“They’d make the packaging changes and it will be fine,” she adds. “I had no idea what I was getting involved with. That was 2009 and here we are, still struggling with the exact same issues with the exact same manufacturers.”

Dave Rousse, the president of INDA, as mentioned earlier the trade association representing the nonwoven fabrics industry, says “we are working collaboratively with NACWA and three other wastewater associations to address what we acknowledge is a problem they’re experiencing with much debris in their wastewater systems, the debris being wipes.”

Rousse says INDA has conducted forensic analyses showing the wipes causing the problems are not wipes marketed as flushable. “There are many kinds of wipes out there made from many different materials,” he says. “The wipes our industry is marketing as flushable are specially constructed from cellulosic materials which ultimately biodegrade. These fibers are short fibers compared with other wipes which are made with long fibers. Short fibers enable them to disentangle more readily and are oftentimes made with chemical binders that release upon exposure to the wastewater itself or based on the bonding process of the fibers, they disentangle upon hitting the wastewater.”

Those wipes, marketed to be flushed, pass the seven tests of the industry flushability assessment guidelines and represent only 7% of wipes marketed, says Rousse. “The other 93% of the wipes contain some of the problem-makers for the wastewater industry,” he says. “But that 93% of wipes were never designed to be flushed, never marketed to be flushed, and oftentimes carry instructions that say ‘do not flush.’ But people flush them anyway inappropriately and those wipes are very capable of causing the problems in wastewater, along with paper towels and feminine hygiene items and dental floss and many other things that shouldn’t be flushed.

“Consumers should pay attention to proper disposal instructions, and our industry is trying to do a much better job of providing those proper disposal instructions through more prominently displaying our very effective ‘do not flush’ symbol on the packaging.”

Still, there are products on the market that tests from within the wastewater industry have shown to be marketed as flushable but are not decomposable. “I would tell you there has been a lot of innovative activity in our industry over the last five years, all in a direction of having the wipe materials lose their strength more quickly upon release into the wastewater system,” says Rousse.

“This is exactly the direction that the wastewater industry would like us to go. It’s exactly the direction we’d like to go. It is an engineering design challenge that the wipe has to have enough strength to do its job when it’s required to, but releases strength quickly.”

His industry is meeting that challenge, contends Rousse. “Today’s materials release their strength far more quickly than the materials of a few years ago,” he adds.

NACWA’s Finley says there are some wipes that are meeting INDA’s flushability guidelines and some that are not; there is no product consistency. “Utilities still recommend against flushing wipes, even if they are labeled flushable,” says Finley. “There are simply no standards being met across the industry to ensure that a flushable wipe is actually flushable. People are still having problems with their household plumbing and they’re still causing problems in the municipal plumbing because of flushable wipes that aren’t truly flushable or flushing wipes that were never meant to be flushed at all, such as baby wipes, which are very strong and can cause all sorts of problems in the system.”

Product stewardship is focused on a labeling code of practice, says Finley. INDA has created a “do not flush” logo. “It’s a perfectly fine logo, but the problem is when manufactures choose to use it, they’re often hiding it on the back of the package and even under the flap,” she says. “Clearly manufacturers have not done a good enough job of labeling wipes that aren’t supposed to be flushed with the ‘do not flush’ logo or instructions.

“The manufacturers are improving the labeling of their product and adopting the code of practice, but if you actually go look in the store, the percentage of products with that label in a place where the consumer is actually going to see it is pretty small. That code of practice has been in place for two years now, and the progress on it has just been much too slow.”

The national initiative to address new manufacturing guidelines includes INDA, NACWA, the American Public Works Association, Water Environment Federation, and the Canadian Water & Wastewater Association.

The group worked collaboratively on the joint development of a new edition of guidelines that will influence product design and support the marketing of nonwoven products that are flushable with no adverse effects on wastewater systems.

The fourth edition of the voluntary flushability guidelines is expected to be released sometime after July 2016. The group also explored a product stewardship initiative to promote greater responsibility for the proper disposal of nonwoven products, including wipes not designed to be flushed.

The group seeks improvement in the labeling of wipes that are not designed to be flushed, as well as the development of strategies for a broader consumer education effort about the proper disposal of wipes.

“One of the things that was brought up was many of the companies that manufacture these products also have very strong statements about corporate responsibility to the environment and sustainability and so the thought was that rather than to talk to the marketing people as far as simply selling flushable wipes, there would be a larger appeal to the sustainability efforts of these collective companies,” says Portland, ME’s Firmin.

“We believe the labeling of products needs to improve,” he adds. “More importantly, the properties of the products need to improve because it’s one thing to put a label on a baby wipe that it works very well for personal cleaning but suggests you don’t flush it. If it is for personal cleaning, people are going to flush it because it’s got material on there that they would normally flush down their toilet.”

The wipes industry has said there are “simply economic and consumer preference barriers right now to making more dispersible products,” says Firmin. “People would rather buy a cheaper tin of baby wipes and use them than pay twice what baby wipes cost for something that’s flushable and dispersible. Ultimately, there needs to be a product that is more dispersible and something that meets consumer needs while recognizing how consumers are going to use them. People won’t throw fecal matter into their trash cans.”

The initiative may expand to include other consumer products that are commonly flushed and cause problems in wastewater systems, such as paper towels, feminine hygiene products, cotton swabs, and other materials.

Better labeling also will help, says Verdant Water’s Strause. She credits Kimberly-Clark for doing a good job labeling the Huggies brand in a visible spot on the package. Nice-Pak, which is now under a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, has put the “do not flush” logo on its Parent’s Choice wipes sold at Wal-Mart, she says.

Product display also influences consumer behaviors. Retailers can contribute to the problem by displaying all types of wipes—flushable and non-flushable—in the same space, says Strause.

“In the consumer’s mind, these products are the same,” she says. “People look at these different price points, but they think all of the products are the same type and that’s partially why we have such a misuse of products.

“We want that logo to be much bigger,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be on the front, but it needs to be where the consumer can see it. Even the biggest companies in the country that make baby wipes are not putting that message in a place where the consumers can see it.”

Laws and Lawsuits
Some government entities, such as the states of Maine, New Jersey, and California, have tried enacting legislation to deal with the issue, notes Finley. “It sounds like a good idea to outlaw flushable wipes or say all flushable wipes have to truly be flushable,” she says. “The reason NACWA hasn’t supported anything like that is because we don’t yet have a standard for calling something flushable. Without that, it’s hard to say a wipe has to meet a certain standard and in fact, it could end up worse if you were to outlaw any wipes from being called flushable. Then you end up with baby wipes on the shelf and people are still flushing baby wipes, even though they’re not meant to be flushed. The genie is out of the bottle on people wanting something more than toilet paper.”

Class action suits and government involvement appears to be making some inroads into the problem. In one of the most significant actions regarding wipes manufacturer responsibility, Nice-Pak Products Inc., a manufacturer of wet wipes, agreed to stop advertising moist toilet tissue as flushable unless it can substantiate that the product is safe to flush under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The company also agreed to not claim that its moist toilet tissue is safe for sewer and septic tanks unless it has substantiation for those claims.

According to the FTC, Nice-Pak will stop providing trade customers, such as retailers, with information to make such unsubstantiated claims. Costco, CVS, Target, and BJ’s Wholesale Club were Nice-Pak customers that sold, under their own private labels, the formulation of the company’s moist toilet tissue that was the subject of the complaint.

The FTC contends that Nice-Pak violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that a certain formulation of its wipes are safe for sewer systems and septic systems, break apart shortly after being flushed, and are safe to flush.

The company’s tests did not reflect real-world household plumbing or septic conditions, according to the FTC. “It was a two-layer wipe where one layer was actually made out of plastic and that thing could not break down at all when it was flushed,” says Finley. “The requirement in that consent agreement from the FTC of Nice-Pak is providing the basis for us to move forward to make sure that any wipe that passes the new guidelines would match the requirements in the consent agreement.”

Technology Upgrades
Pump manufacturers are responding to the wipe clogging problem with upgraded technology.

Thompson Pump has developed a self-cleaning impeller system to handle clogging caused by flushable wipes while saving energy.

The Thompson Self Cleaning Impeller System consists of a semi-open impeller with specially designed backward swept inclined vanes, together with a serrated and v-notched wearplate for pulling debris and stringy material away from the impeller vanes to reduce clogging risks. The Thompson Self Cleaning Impeller System can be added to any existing Thompson JS series pump. To install, the closed impeller is removed and the semi-open impeller and wear plate is installed.

For severe unscreened wastewater applications, an optional auger attachment is available to aid in conveying rags and stringy materials through the pump.

Citing water conservation efforts that have increased the percentage of solids in wastewater environments and new disposable items with synthetic reinforcements that have become problematic for wastewater systems, Julia Everman, spokesperson for Crane Pumps & Systems, says the issue makes clog resistance capability “all the more important in solids handling pumps.”

Crane Pumps & Systems introduced a line of submersible solids handling pumps with non-recessed Vortex impellers that pass these solids without clogging by providing sufficient radial velocity to move the wipes and other related matter out of the pump, she says.

The Barnes brand SHV and XSHV pumps are available in 3-, 6-, and 8-inch sizes. Vertical Smith & Loveless Non-Clog Pumps are designed to meet the 10 States Standard for 3-inch solids handling.

X-PELLER pump from Smith & Loveless

For applications with high volumes of flushables, the custom-trimmed, dual-port pump impeller is designed to be simply replaced with the X-PELLER. Its mono-port design creates a single flow path through the impeller, thereby negating the common buildup of fibrous material from today’s flushables in multi-vane pump impellers.

The X-PELLER’s ability to easily pass 3-inch solids and problem flushables is in its design that counterbalances the hydraulic forces at play inside the pump volute in order to maintain balance during operation.

The X-PELLER can handle flows from 75–500 gallons per minute (GPM) for 4-inch pumps and 200–1,000 GPM for 6-inch pumps. The impeller is designed to operate at 900, 1,200, and 1,800 rpm. Pumps from other vertical pump brands can be outfitted with the X-PELLER if the rotating assembly is replaced. Each X-PELLER impeller is custom-trimmed by Smith & Loveless for each application to meet specific pumping conditions.

Bob Domkowski, business development manager for transport pumping and amusement markets and engineering consultant for Xylem Inc., Water Solutions USA–Flygt, notes the problems that wipes have been causing for wastewater utilities affect energy efficiency and lead to the need for retrofits.

What should take a lift station five or 10 minutes to accomplish ends up taking a half hour because the impeller can no longer operate at its best efficiency, he adds.

Better screening and adjustable speed drives provide the most benefit for utilities, as do “smart” drives, says Domkowski. Xylem has one product in its drive system where the data on the actual performance curve and characteristics of the pump are in a lock box in the pump drive. When the pump is activated for the first time, the drive determines how long it takes to empty a wet well, says Domkowski.

“The next time it turns on, it will start at two hertz lower speed and see how long it takes to empty the wet well and measure how much energy was used,” he says. “If it uses less energy, the next time the drive starts, it will start two hertz slower even further and keeps on doing that until it gets to the point where it costs a little bit more to empty the wet well that time, so it goes back the other way. It’s constantly searching for the best operating position.”

That results in reduced pressure and costs, deriving an energy savings benefit of 40–50% over traditional solutions and an impeller that can handle modern trash concerns, says Domkowski.

Finley points out that the two pump stations on which Portland, ME, spent significant money to retrofit in response to the wipes problem could have been used a lot longer, “but because they were having so many problems with wipes, they couldn’t just pull out one piece of equipment and put in another.

“That’s a relatively small utility,” she adds. “There are utilities all over the country that are putting in grinder pumps to try to chop these things up as they come through and keep them from getting clogged. But when you have that happening, you’re not removing the wipes from the system, you’re just chopping them up and pushing them further down, so they are still going through your system.”

There is some evidence that the ground-up wipes can recombine into rope-like materials, says Finley.

“The material is still getting into your wastewater treatment system and end up in the biosolids. If it’s plastic baby wipes getting chopped up in to smaller pieces, then you’ve got plastic going into the biosolids and potentially small plastic pieces going out into the effluent like the microbeads that are being outlawed in many states and perhaps nationally,” she says. “Just chopping them up to get them through the system is not the answer.”

Strause says she doesn’t believe it’s necessary to get 100% of the products out of the sewer. During field visits, she notes that baby wipes, surface cleaning wipes, and facial cleaning wipes are clogging the pumps and by reducing the number of baby wipes and cleaning wipes, the intensity of the problem will diminish.

Finley agrees. “It will definitely take a lot of public education and it will probably never be 100%,” she says. “If we can at least get a certain portion of the population to alter their behavior, we can make some progress.”

Some wipes manufacturers are working on prototypes for better products, says Finley. There also are scented sprays that can are being made for use on toilet paper so consumers don’t have to use wipes.

“We think there could be wipes that would be safe to flush, but we have to have some kind of standard for determining that,” she says. “That’s why we’re working with the other wastewater associations and with the wipes industry to develop a new fourth edition of flushability guidelines that we can all agree on that will determine if a wipe is truly safe to be flushed.” 

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

Sponsored Recommendations

ArmorBlock 5000: Boost Automation Efficiency

April 25, 2024
Discover the transformative benefits of leveraging a scalable On-Machine I/O to improve flexibility, enhance reliability and streamline operations.

Rising Cyber Threats and the Impact on Risk and Resiliency Operations

April 25, 2024
The world of manufacturing is changing, and Generative AI is one of the many change agents. The 2024 State of Smart Manufacturing Report takes a deep dive into how Generative ...

State of Smart Manufacturing Report Series

April 25, 2024
The world of manufacturing is changing, and Generative AI is one of the many change agents. The 2024 State of Smart Manufacturing Report takes a deep dive into how Generative ...

SmartSights WIN-911 Alarm Notification Software Enables Faster Response

March 15, 2024
Alarm notification software enables faster response for customers, keeping production on track