False Marketing And Washington DC Wet Wipe Sewer Problems  April 6, 2017 20:28

This post was inspired by recent legislation addressing Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems, more specifically a recent article in the Huffington Post that discussed DC's wet wipe law. There was nowhere to leave comments, so we decided to address the content of the Huff Post article here...

We have written about the efforts of New York City to help address that city's problems caused by bathroom wet wipes and the wet wipe lawsuits around the country.  Well, now new flushable wipe legislation which regulates the sale of flushable wipes was passed by the Washington D.C. city council in an effort to address Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems.  That legislation has been signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser . The recent Huff Post article referred to above is entitled, "Flushing Busybody Politicians."

In this article the author states,

"Showing that no issue is too small, regulators in the nation’s capital have prohibited labeling flushable wipes – a useful product loved by mothers of infants and messy toddlers to the elderly, and everyone in between – as “flushable”, effectively creating a ban on local sales for this nationally marketed consumer good."

This is not entirely accurate, it is the FALSE labeling of SO-CALLED flushable wipes as flushable that is at the heart  of the Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems.  As a matter of fact, there has been quite a bit of legal action against the false marketing of so-called flushable wipes throughout the USA. Here is an example of one such wet wipe lawsuit.

The Washington DC legislation does not ban the sale of all bathroom wet wipes.  

The law is intended for wipes claiming to be flushable to actually pass testing confirming that the wipes are indeed flushable by readily breaking apart - and those wipes that do not pass the test by breaking apart quickly enough - must have a label that says "DO NOT FLUSH."

In other words, if the wipes do not break apart according to an established standard after being flushed, the manufacturer needs to tell their consumers that their wet wipe product should not be flushed.  

do not flush wet wipes

Is this really too much to ask to mitigate Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems?

While some regulations can indeed bog-down the flow of life, some regulations serve as the "oil" that keeps society flowing as smoothly as possible. When wet wipes are clogging pipes, society also gets "clogged-up" along with this mess, and the costs to fix wastewater treatment plants, sewer and plumbing problems caused by wet wipes are passed on to the taxpayer.

Washington DC's wet wipe sewer problems, as well as wet wipe problems throughout the world, are not a small issue.  A quick Internet search on the topic displays many articles about this problem. Check out Etiquette's Google Plus Page and you will see what we mean.

Many of the bathroom wipes people use to keep their fannies clean don't break apart as they pass through the sewer system.  So, assuming they do not get clogged along the way, once they make it to the treatment plant, they often overwelm the system clogging the plant's screens, pumps and grinders.

wet wipes clog pipes

The sewer systems and waste water treatment plants across the USA, and other parts of the world, are not designed to handle the amount of solid materials that come their way, including bathroom wet wipes that people use to wipe their fannies after a trip to the loo.

Sure, there are other household products such as grease, cleaning wipes and facial tissue that contribute to Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems, but these products are not marketed and sold as "flushable" - and perhaps more importantly - are not typically used while on the toilet with you know what on them.

When wipes have feces on them, and one is sitting on a toilet, it is only natural to want to flush them away, right?

To Flush or Not to Flush, That is the Controversial Question.

Just how contentious and controversial this issue surrounding Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems has become is reflected in point-counterpoint Washington Examiner editorials by a current and former manager of DC Water.

George H. is the current CEO and general manager of DC Water who is in favor of the wet wipe legislation against mislabeling of flushable wipes and Hiram T. is a former manager of sewer pumping for DC Water who believes the DC ban on flushable wipes should be flushed.

As George H. describes the problem,

"Many times, wipes clog residential plumbing pipes, get trapped with grease-forming fatbergs, wrap around our pumps causing them to fail, or get stuck in our screens causing maintenance problems and unnecessary repairs that our customers ultimately have to pay for on their sewer bills. These wipes must be removed by DC Water workers, placing them at increased risk of injury and illness."
When looking into the role of wet wipes clogging pipes, one will soon see that bathroom wet wipe flushing advocates often point to a "scientific" study commissioned by New York City that found, "only 2 percent of the contents of Fatbergs came from flushable wipes, most of that barely identifiable." In his article suporting DC's wet wipe regulations, George H. notes that this two-percent number was determined,
"from a single collection study in New York City, using a very small sample of wipes taken at one time, right after a major storm had likely flushed out that city's combined sewer system. The study did not include the contents of any fatbergs. Other reputable studies actually show a higher percentage of flushable wipes in sewer systems."
Interestingly, in his editorial response, Hiram T., who supports overturning  D.C.'s regulation of flushable wipes, states that floods to the DC sewer system can,
"sweep through: entire car engines, animal carcasses, large slabs of concrete."

If this is the case, is it not safe to assume that storm water could have had an at least some "flushing effect" described by George H.? This "flushing effect" is clearly a confounding factor that must be taken into consideration when interpreting the "study."

George H. goes on to point out that,

"DC Water and more than 200 utilities worldwide signed onto a uniform and accurate definition for flushability. This definition is the basis of the city council's legislation regulating flushable wipes. While most wipes sold in the United States do not meet this standard, wipes that are actually flushable do exist, but only overseas. By passing this legislation, wipe manufacturers in the U.S. will be encouraged to keep up with technology and change their manufacturing processes to make wipes that actually meet their claim of being flushable if they want to be sold as such."

We have not independently verified that there are no truly flushable wipes in the USA that can honestly meet the current Federal Trade Commission test for wet wipe flushability.

Wet Wipes Containing Plastic Filaments

In recent decades,  cleaning wipes infused with plastic filaments have come to market including some baby wipes with this composition.

All carry "Do Not Flush" warning labels.  Nevertheless, people do flush these down toilets in which case they are also contributing to the Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems and wet wipe problems throughout the world.

In commenting on the law to address the Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems, the Huff Post article mentioned above states,

"The city council voted in December to prohibit the kinds of personal-cleaning wipes that are supposed to be flushable from being labeled as flushable. These wipes do not contain plastic and are designed to come apart in discharge pipes, much like toilet paper. Mayor Bowser signed the bill earlier this month. The practical result will be a ban on the local sale of a class of innovative products found in 20 percent of households nationally and used by nursing homes to care for elderly patients.
The problem is that, despite DC Water's communications, many of the banned products' users will be sure to turn to non-flushables and flush them anyway, aggravating the Fatberg problem.
I agree with the wastewater community that we need standards to assure that all wipe products are safe for our systems. But on Dec. 7th, the day after the city council vote, a Federal District Court in New York City ruled that the Federal Trade Commission had established an "acceptable national standard" for the product, making state and local standards "not acceptable."
The city council should provide a mechanism for the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs and DC Water to approve these products without having to expend valuable and extremely scarce resources. Instead of burdening those agencies, it would be better to call for manufacturer self-certification backed by evidence that the product breaks apart in accordance with the FTC standard. The self-certification and data would be presented to the two agencies for approval."

Self-regulation is doomed to failure; there is simply too much money at stake.

wet wipe flushability test

In the past, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry which represents wet wipe manufacturers created their own standard. Unfortunately, that standard was not agreed upon by members of the wastewater industry and did not meet a real definition of "flushable."

Just because an item goes down the drain and out of sight when one flushes the toilet does not make it "flushable." On a national level, the wet wipe lobby is just too powerful for much positive regulatory movement regarding wet wipes  - the Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems, wipe problems throughout the U.S. and problems worldwide.

Huff Post author,

"The city council is the first in the country to prohibit a promising innovation such as cleaning wipes. A wise city council would modify the law to avoid placing additional burdens on already thinly-stretched agencies while accommodating technological innovation. It’s a familiar, though entirely false, criticism. Those who oppose these convenient products suggest flushable wipes are contributing to the increasingly disgusting problem of citywide sewer blockages."

First of all, the use of the absolute, "entirely false" sets the author up for easy rebuttal.

Is it really "entirely" false? Does the author believe that that not one iota of the problem is due to so-called flushable wipes?  The word "flushable" was not defined...How come?

"Yet, they overlook another, very similar product, that’s far more likely to be causing the problem—baby wipes and cleaning wipes, which are not flushable because they contain plastic filaments that do not break down in sewers. Flushable wipes do not contain plastic and are designed to disaggregate in sewer systems."

Yes , many cleaning wipes do contain plastic filaments, and, to some degree are likely contributing to the costs of municipalities' sewage treatment and Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems, but how many of these products are being used in the proximity of a toilet?

We can think of a toilet cleaning wipe being used to wipe off a toilet and being thrown in the toilet when one is done cleaning, but people generally have a waste basket in their bathroom for this purpose.

Most people do not have a waste basket in their bathroom to deposit used toilet paper.

We believe most people, especially with some education on this topic, will discard a toilet cleaning wipe in the waste basket since there is no feces on it.  Once feces enters the picture,  it is a different ballgame.

Likewise regarding another type of wipe that is commonly used in the bathroom, make up remover wipes.

The difference between Baby Wipes and Adult Wipes is not as significant as it once was; in many cases, both are marketed as "flushable." There was a time when adults were using "baby wipes" because that is all that was avilable for better hygiene until parents started asking themselves, "Hey, why is my kid's butt cleaner than mine?"

At that point, the market expanded to include adults and the word "Baby" was removed from many products to facilitate marketing to a larger demographic.

Huff Post,

"Yet, sadly for DC residents, these flushable standards won’t be developed anytime soon. It’s common knowledge that city water authority staff is already stretched so thin that they simply won’t be able to take on these standard setting responsibilities. What’s even more galling is that the Federal Trade Commission has already established a national standard for flushable wipes, making these DC-specific standards unnecessary. While sewage problems are indeed a worthy cause for city officials’ attention, it’s important to not throw the baby products out with the bathwater. In a recent sewage test in New York City, only two percent of the sewage blockage residue came from flushable wipes while a full 33 percent was made up of the plastic filament contained in non-flushable baby wipes."

Evidently, in the opinion of the DC legislature, the FTC standard is not sufficient for protecting consumers and for preventing Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems.

Along with the Federal Trade Commission, politicians are tasked with ensuring that products are not sold to consumers using false advertising.

As noted above many writers cite the New York City wet wipe "study" -  At least the Huff Post author did not claim it was "scientific" as others have done.

People are inclined to use less discretion for the public good in the privacy of their own bathrooms. In other words, when no one is looking, they flush away thinking, "it's only a couple of wipes; what harm can that do?"

do not flushwet wipes

Yes, There Are Wet Wipe Alternatives!

Huff Post,
"Politicians would also do well to remember why certain products are developed in the first place: in response to genuine consumer interest. "The problem with this bill is that it's going to effectively ban the flushable wipes," David Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, said in an interview. "The only thing people are going to have left to buy to perform their personal hygiene are baby wipes, and baby wipes are the worst kind for flushing."

The consumer is not interested in bathroom wet wipes, per se.

The consumer is interested in good bathroom hygiene and personal care, i.e, a clean fanny.

It is also not true that without standard wet wipes, the only alternative is baby wipes!

There are options other than wet wipes clogging pipes.  You have to go no further than this website to learn what that is ;-)

Huff Post,

"Flushable wipes are popular with mothers of young children and with those who care for the elderly. The unintended consequences of this measure should also be considered. This ban will result in the greater use of non-flushable wipes, like baby wipes and chlorine-based cleaning wipes (which are not banned). In fact, it’s likely people will start flushing more of these wipes instead of the flushable alternative, which will only exacerbate the problems with the city’s sewers."

This is a valid point, the Law of Unintended Consequences is a concern, however I wonder if the argument is based on a false premise - What is banned is the false labeling of bathroom bum wet wipes as flushable when in fact they do not sufficiently break apart to be marketed as flushable.

Certainly consumers, and the municipalities in which they live deserve to be protected from false advertising.

In addition, the quote that "Baby Wipes" are non-flushable wipes is inaccurate. There are many manufacturers of "flushable baby wipes" that are held to the same flushability standard as adult wet wipe manufacturers.

Regarding "Chlorine Wipes," while not impossible, it is unlikely that consumers will begin to use various disinfecting wipes and cleaning wipes for counter tops and other inanimate objects on their fannies. If they do, it probably will not be done for long, once they experience the potential skin issues that could occur.

Huff Post,

"Naturally, environmentalists are on the wrong side of this issue, applauding the ban when they should be vocally opposed to the waste that this ban will create. Flushable wipes are biodegradable and cut down on the water usage related to using non-disposable washcloths in place of flushable wipes. Where are the environmentalists on water waste and the needed infrastructure repairs that will inevitably result from this ban?"

Here, speaking in the context of environmentalists, the author shifts from writing about the increased plumbing and wastewater management problems that may occur due to the Law of Unintended Consequences from the flushing of non-flushable wipes to the concept of "waste."

The use of non-disposable washcloths is not a common practice with most bathroom users. Washcloths are most commonly used when caring for the very young and the very old.  In these cases, the users of those washcloths have a real mess on their hands literally) and a wet washcloth is a better alternative for the job at hand regardless of the need for some water.  Disagree?  Go volunteer at a nursing home or baby nursery; you will understand.

Huff post,

"Politicians see nothing wrong with stepping in to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and creating a solution that will result in substantial and unintended human costs, while making society’s problem far worse."

To say a problem does not exist is disingenuine.  Far worse?

Here at Etiquette, we have a "solution" to Washington DC wet wipe sewer problems - An organic-based hygiene solution that also provides for great skin care "down there." :-)