Labels can be deceiving, as consumers and sewage plant workers across the U.S. are now discovering.
Flushable bathroom wipes — you know, the moist towelettes for your backside — just aren’t as flushable as they should be, no matter what the labels may insist.
Cities across the nation are finding the new age toilet paper clogging their pipes. It’s happening in Honolulu, too.
“The wipes clog sewer lines, pump stations and treatment plants,” said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesperson for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
But that’s not what the product labeling promises. Companies market their wipes as being convenient, sanitary and, perhaps most importantly, compatible with your plumbing.
One of the most popular brands is Cottonelle. The company claims on its website, “Our flushable wipes use a patented dispersible technology, which means that when used as directed they break up after flushing and clear properly maintained toilets, drainlines, sewers, pumps, and septic and municipal treatment systems.”
According to Kimberly-Clark, the company that produces Cottonelle’s wipes, the products are made to be flushable. Kimberly-Clark spokesman Bob Brand recently told USA Today the wipes undergo many tests to ensure suitability for home and city sewer systems.
But this just isn’t the case, according to the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services spokesman Markus Owens. Workers have to deal with the added debris and nuisance that these wipes create on top of the regular upkeep and cleaning of the pipes.
Consumer Reports even conducted a test comparing “flushable” wipes against regular toilet paper and concluded that the wipes still hadn’t broken down after 30 minutes, whereas toilet paper only took eight seconds.
“Our crews have responded to trouble calls in residential areas and found these wipes in the system,” Owens said in an email. “These wipes also contribute to recurring problems at our pumping stations; they do not break down, and create additional work for our crews who have to repeatedly remove them on a monthly or weekly basis.
“It is a continuous problem that diverts personnel, who would better serve our primary mission of maintaining our facilities.”
There are 70 wastewater pumping stations in Honolulu, and it’s not always the same ones that clog up. This means workers can’t pinpoint the exact areas that are problematic. The city does not know or keep statistics on how many taxpayer dollars are being spent to combat the problem.
Four months ago, Honolulu’s Collection System Maintenance Division assigned a consultant, who was already on contract, to help figure out ways to stop everything other than toilet paper from getting into the sewage system.
“No regulations are in the works,” Owens said. “However, we are looking at if other municipalities are taking any proactive approaches to stopping the flushing of these wipes.”
Owens added that the flushable wipes are a relatively new problem, but it’s not the only thing that clogs Honolulu’s sewer pipes.
“We also have problems with dental floss, sanitary napkins, hand towels and diapers,” Owens said. And then there are the out of the ordinary items that get flushed down the toilet, he added, such as toys, clothes and even beach towels.
Owens said the city is now looking at ways to educate the public about what not to flush down the toilet, and is considering fliers and bill stuffers.
The timing might be perfect. The wipes industry is booming. Flushable wipes alone are responsible for about 14 percent of the $4 billion market, and over the next 5 years sales are expected to grow 6 percent annually.
According to the Washington Post, the definition of what’s “flushable” may get federal oversight soon. Wastewater industry officials and wipe manufacturers said the Federal Trade Commission has asked them for information, citing their probe into what the “flushable” label really means.
It’s doubtful beach towels will make the cut.
DISCUSSION: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve flushed down the toilet?
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