Wipes industry group head addresses problems caused by flushed products
In recent months, the problem of wipes harming wastewater systems has hit mainstream discourse, with a New York Times article bringing unprecedented attention to the issue. Every day, wastewater operators must deal with the clogging and fouling caused by wipes, but what is the nonwoven fabrics industry doing to help? INDA President David Rousse spoke with W&WD Associate Editor Michael Meyer about the industry’s efforts to help solve the wipes problem.
Michael Meyer: What sorts of industry standards have you discussed with wastewater operators?
David Rousse: We’ve been involved in this issue since 2003, when we submitted a flushability assessment platform to the Water Environment Research Foundation for peer review, which agreed it was a good framework for assessing flushability. That led to the development of the guidance document for assessing the flushability of nonwoven consumer products—the third edition came out in 2013. Right now, we are deep in the process of working on the fourth edition, and there are wastewater representatives at the table from both the U.S. and Canada actively involved in the development of it.
There are seven test methods in the third edition of the guidance document. All seven must be passed to justify the marketing of a product as being flushable, or able to be flushed without causing harm to the wastewater system.
Meyer: How has the guidance document evolved over time?
Rousse: The original document consisted of 23 tests and various sequencing of the tests, so it was quite confusing—that pertains to editions one and two. Edition three is a tremendous advancement in simplifying the test methods down to seven tests and tightening some of the pass/fail limits of those seven tests. The seven tests are designed to screen out high wet-strength materials—materials that will never break apart in the system—to ensure that the wipes pass household plumbing systems and pumps, and verify that the wipes will sink in septic tanks, so that they [can] be biologically treated. [The tests] assess the [wipes’] ability to pass through municipal pumps without generating a significant power increase in the pump. Wipes [also] have to pass a biodisintegration/biodegradability test to ensure that they become unrecognizable in their final state.
Meyer: Please explain the Code of Practice. What type of feedback have you received about it?
Rousse: The Code of Practice is the overarching position that we ask the wipes industry to adopt. It includes a decision tree, which requires a brand owner who is going to market a wipe as flushable to go through our flushability assessments. If it’s going to be used in a bathroom setting or it’s going to be in contact with certain bodily fluids, then it has to have the “do not flush” symbol prominently displayed on the packaging. We believe, and wastewater associations we deal with believe, that conforming to this labeling requirement will have the greatest impact on reducing the burden wastewater is experiencing from inappropriately flushed non-flushable wipes.
That’s the real problem: Wipes not designed to be flushed—not designed to break down and disintegrate in the wastewater system—are being flushed too often, and that’s what has to be reduced. The products that pass the flushability test are really weak products, and they get weaker when they are exposed to the wastewater environment. They’re so weak that they don’t cause a significant increase in the energy of a pump to pass through a pump, [and] will break apart eventually as they pass through the system. And they’re not the products that are causing the problems—we know that from forensic analyses of wastewater pump station inlet screens.
Meyer: What key innovations are on the horizon for the nonwoven industry that may help address this?
Rousse: We’ve had a significant amount of innovation in our industry, all in the direction of having the wipe lose its strength more quickly upon entering the wastewater system. All of their fibers are cellulosic, so eventually they biodegrade on the flushable side. On the non-flushable side, they’re polyesters and polypropylenes—plastic-y stuff that’s never going to biodegrade. A flushable wipe has special raw materials—shorter fibers bound together with special processes, sometimes chemicals—that have the property of releasing quickly upon contact with the wastewater. Today’s wipe releases its wet strength far more quickly than the wipe of four years ago, and there’s continued developments in these areas.