The joke about Washington politics being in the toilet isn’t just an off-color jest. The latest salvo in the battle between wastewater utilities and wet wipes comes from the District of Columbia, which imposed regulations on the popular toiletry in late 2016.
The District used language issued by the Federal Trade Commission in 2015 to require companies that label their product “flushable” to prove the material is safe to flush, breaks apart shortly after flushing, and is safe for sewer and septic systems. Proponents including DC Water say it will eliminate clogs created by wet wipes wrapping around pumps and screens, a phenomenon that’s driving up maintenance costs at sewer utilities nationwide. In 2012, Public Works reported that pulling pumps to remove the material costs $100,000 on average. In one incident, Orange County, Calif., paid $320,000.
The law went into effect in March 2017 but has already drawn fire from Congress, which has authority over the District. The Washington Post reports that Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD) is working to attach a rider to the District’s federal funding that would overturn the requirements. In June, he told a local radio station that “we could deal with this through an appropriations measure that makes D.C. think twice about banning a helpful product.”
He’s backed up by the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), which represents the $7 billion industry. Mary Cheh, the law’s author and District council member, told the radio station, “This is a sneaky little backdoor way for these companies to frustrate a local decision. They do it at the behest of industry representatives.”
A Nationwide Call for Regulation
California, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York have tried but failed to regulate flushable wipes. In the interim, frustrated municipalities are taking matters into their own hands.
The Minnesota communities of Princeton, Fergus Falls, Elk River, and Chisago Lakes have joined a class action lawsuit against INDA filed by the City of Wyoming in 2015. "These flushable wipes don’t degrade," says Wyoming's suit. "They remain intact long enough to pass through private wastewater drain pipes into the municipal sewer line, causing clogs and other issues for municipal and county sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants, resulting in thousands, if not millions, of dollars in damage." The city of nearly 8,000 wants the court to declare the wipes unsafe for sewers and require manufacturers to establish a compensation fund.
Also in 2015, the City of Perry, Iowa, filed a similar lawsuit but dropped it in July 2017 after failing to attribute clogs and increased maintenance costs to wet wipes. An independent study by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection identified the culprits to be baby wipes, surface cleaning wipes, and paper towels instead of wet wipes.
“The settlement terms corroborate what years of testing and field collection studies have shown: that flushable wipes aren’t causing municipal clogs or increased maintenance,” says INDA President Dave Rousse. “To date, despite sensational headlines, there’s no evidence from any wastewater agency proving that flushable wipes are causing clogs or maintenance issues.”