For years, wastewater utilities have begged restaurants and residents not to flush fats, oils, and greases (FOG) down sewers and toilets. Now, say the participants of a recent WEFTEC session, they should also focus on wet wipes: the hundreds of thousands of convenience products that people flush instead of throwing away because manufacturers don’t tell them not to.

Here's the problem: Baby wipes, paper towels, etc., may not be labeled ‘flushable’ but people assume they are. Disposal directions, if they exist, are confusing. If retailers and the wastewater industry can't parse the subtle linguistic differences between “flushable,” dispersible,” and “disposable,” imagine the average person's confusion.

Wastewater managers like Rob Villee of New Jersey's Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority say that’s easily fixed: toughen the standards for what can be labeled “flushable,” then require manufacturers to prominently place a “don’t flush” logo on that product’s packaging.

Just a minute, say companies like Procter&Gamble. It’s not as easy to do as you’d think.

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Changing a package design takes an average of 18 months. Designers must be engaged to tweak the graphics; manufacturing processes retooled to print the new design. Color costs more than black and white. Labeling requirements are voluntary, so private-label manufacturers for retailers like Costco and Target must first convince their customers to make the additional investment all this requires.

In 2003 the Water Environment Federation asked INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, to help develop criteria for determining what can be labeled flushable. The wastewater industry signed off on guidelines (and thus the science behind) but wants them expanded so they encompass more products. INDA says members are making a good-faith effort to be environmentally sustainable and besides, wet wipes aren’t the main problem – paper towels are. Those manufacturers are represented by a different association the wastewater industry hasn’t even talked to.

It’s always about the money, isn’t it? Consumer goods manufacturers and retailers would have to spend millions to be good environmental citizens, a cost they’d have to pass at least in part on to their customers. Public agencies are spending millions on extra labor and new equipment, costs that their customers pay via higher sewer rates.

Either way, the public pays. Why is that so hard for people to understand?

P.S. In case you were wondering, Shittens are disposable, mitten-shaped moist wipes. From the product’s website: “With new Shittens, you can fully protect your hands while tending to the dirty deed.”