Guardian Australia visits wastewater treatment plants around the country to uncover the struggle everyone is dealing with: Wet Wipes and non-flushables.
Left: Interviewers for Guardian took a trip to Sydney Water for a look inside the wastewater facility and how they deal with the wipes problem. Luke Justus, a Process Controller for Sydney Water discusses the frustration of wipes clogs: “The first indication we’ll get is that we will suddenly have three or four screens fail on the master control system, we send people down to look, we open the hatch and just see crap; wipes and sewage and congealed fatty material all tangled around each other and tangled around the screen so the only way to deal with it is manually so it’s people with claws and rakes and shovels trying to get this stuff out.”
Right: Staff for the Guardian show FOG encrusted piping during a plant tour at Malabar Wastewater Treatment. Operators at the plant stress that the hard mass of FOG and wipes narrows the piping and is extremely difficult to remove, causing hours of manual labor to chip away and clear the debris.
The City of Fargo’s crews were recently alerted by a system sensor at the lift station that there was a problem. Crews worked to figure out what was triggering the sensor when they came across the source of the issue: a massive ball of unflushables, including wet wipes, that had been blocking up the system. Crew members snapped photos in disbelief of the large mass they worked to clear from the lift station. The following statement was posted on the City of Fargo’s Facebook page:
“An old saying goes something like “what comes up, must go down.” At #Fargo Wastewater Department, the team prefers to say “what goes down, must come out somewhere.” These pictures are not showing a giant hairball; rather, they show a collection of items that shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet and accumulated on sanitary lift station #25. These instances occur when non-flushables are disposed of improperly into our sewer system. Fortunately, The City of Fargo utilizes sensors and other methods to alert our team members when systems are not operating at full capacity. Team Fargo responded to address the issue in restoring the system’s ability to handle peak capacity flows. Learn more about Wastewater Department operations athttp://fargond.gov/wastewater.”
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, or ACCC for short, recently took Kimberly-Clark to federal court over the claims that their wipes are ‘flushable’ and safe for sewer systems. The ACCC argued that the label misleads consumers into thinking that the products are able to breakdown once flushed, just like toiler paper. Unfortunately, the court ruled in favor of Kimberly-Clark due to a lack of evidence to prove that wipes products had contributed to the problems in municipal sewage systems.
The outcome of the case greatly upset environmental and advocacy groups across Australia, especially considering the detriment the country’s wastewater systems have endured due to unflushables in the piping.
After the hearing, Head of Campaigns and Policy at CHOICE has stepped in to keep warning Australians about the dangers of flushing wipes. CHOICE applauded the ACCC for ‘taking on tough cases like this and a strong consumer regulator will have wins and losses along the way’.
Continue reading the latest about the issue, here.
Markham’s Councillor, Jack Heath, is ready to start cracking down on all products marketed as “flushable”. According to the article, the products are clogging sewers and costing the region $1 million per year to remove. Heath was noted saying the he knows the move will be controversial and require a lot of work but he wants to take the steps in hopes that others will follow.
“Of course, we’ll create a court case. Of course we’ll be into matters of (critics saying), ‘You have no jurisdiction’ etc., etc., and it will be on the front page,” Heath said. “And, quickly, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal and other bigger organizations will weigh in and say, ‘We have this problem, too.’ I think that’s the only way to make a step forward on this.” – Jack Heath, Markham Councillor
To kickoff the movement, Heath proposes banning flushable items from stores. The Environmental Services commissioner, Erin Mahoney, says that there are a bundle of products being poured down sinks and flushed that shouldn’t – like fats, oils, grease, feminine hygiene products, etc. – but perhaps the most troubling is the wet wipe because they are falsely sold as being safe to flush.
“Improperly disposing of these items can block pipes and bind pumps, causing damage and sewage backups, resulting in increased maintenance costs along with health, safety and environmental risks.” – Erin Mahoney, Environmental Services commissioner
Local community members, including student volunteers, have come up with a clever way to catch the public eye. This weekend, the Androscoggin Valley Stormwater Working Group and many others gathered for a municipal stormwater drainage system discussion and then began making their way through the town using stencils to create works of art on storm drains.
“This stenciling event is in effort to help educate the public of this process and to remind them not to dump down the drain.” – Androscoggin Valley Soil & Water Conservation District
Efforts of the project also reinforce to the public that illegal dumping into storm drains and sewers has a mass negative impact on the ocean and community.
“The Androscoggin Valley Soil and Water Conservation District will be joined by the City of Lewiston as we lead a troop of girl scouts on a mission to stencil storm water drains with messages warning people what not to throw down there!” – Androscoggin Valley Soil & Water Conservation District Facebook page
Wipes aren’t just damaging to our sewers. They are polluting our oceans, too.
According to Jackson Reece, a plant-based baby wipe manufacturer, wipes are to blame for 93% of the UK’s sewer blockages. But that isn’t all that’s effected by the products; our oceans are in danger, too. Jackson Reece recently partnered with the Dublin Aquarium Sea Life Bray to show visitors the true impact of wet wipe use and the harm the flushing wipes causes to oceans. The video also states that 99% of wipes produced and sold today are created with polyester material, which is plastic and not biodegradable – despite flushable claims.
“All parents can agree that they want the best possible future for the kids, and that can be possible if we change up our buying habits, such as plastic-infused wipes for biodegradable.” – Jackson Reece
As efforts ramp up to knock out sewage clogs caused by wet wipes, the disposable wipe market continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
So which wipes are predicted to grow the most? Let’s first break down how wipes are segmented in the market: According to a study from the Market Research Gazette, the global flushable wipes market is divided by application and region. In terms of application, the wipes market is separated into a couple different categories, for example: cosmetic, personal care, medical, etc. The personal care segment can be broken down further, as products like baby wipes, feminine wipes and antibacterial hand wipes all fall under this category.
Researchers forecast that the personal care wipes are expected to launch the wipes market and contribute to its overall steady revenue growth for the period. Another growing segment is the feminine hygiene wipes, which lives under the personal care category. The article notes that increased convenience for quick hygiene maintenance and a push in marketing these specific product segments are the largest contributing factors for the market growth and success of the overall global wipes industry.
In the April 2019 issue of Environmental Science & Engineering Magazine, wastewater industry experts weigh in on new regulations put in place for flushability claims made on the labels of wet wipes.
So, what’s the verdict? It’s a toss up. Some wastewater operators in Canada are pleased with this step forward for the industry saying that they believe these new specifications on wipes labeled as “flushable” will begin to help reduce the cost and headache of blocked sewer pipes across the country. On the other hand, these new regulations aren’t stringent enough for the rest of the industry experts. The experts point out that the governing association that created the regulations – INDA and EDANA, both profit from non-woven fabric and wet wipes industry sales.
Wipes are created from a combination of natural and manmade fibers to make up a nonwoven sheet. The components include: cellulose, cotton, regenerated cellulose, polyester and high-density polyethylene. There are two ways to fabricate the materials into the end product; the first way is by mixing the materials at various ratios through hydroentanglement, which is when high speed jets of water strike a web of fibers so that they knot around one another. The other way nonwovens are created is with heat. The materials are mixed when the polymer is heated to a high temperature when extruded through small nozzles while hot air is being blown. The resulting products of each method is a material that has a very high wet-strength.
Even with the new specifications and reports of “flushable” wipes, research has concluded the even these wipes still don’t mimic toilet paper, as they are too thick and retain too much strength to break down fully. On average, toilet paper loses 90% of its strength when wet while flushable wet wipes only lose about 29%.
For the next month, Yorkshire Water in Sheffield, UK is promoting it’s latest campaign for community engagement which aims to spread the message of the importance of looking after the sewer networks. As a part of the campaign they have sent out their eight-foot tall ‘Wipesaur” and anti-blockage packs for the public with things like kitchen sink strainers and shower hair catchers for the home. They encourage passers by to take a selfie with the friendly dino to share on social and further spread the word.
Yorkshire Water is sending out an eight-foot tall ‘Wipesaur’ dinosaur mascot to pound the streets of Sheffield to help educate residents about the problems wet wipes can cause to their local sewer system.
Every year, Yorkshire Water is called out to repair more than 30,000 sewer blockages across the region, costing £2.4 million with 40% of these blockages being caused by wet wipes flushed down toilets.
For the campaign, Yorkshire Water created a page dedicated to “Anti-blockage” information. The page highlights a challenge set forth by the water company that will award a lump sum of funds to groups located in “hot spot” areas for clogs. The groups/organizations in the hot spot areas are challenged to work together as a community to significantly reduce clogs caused by wipes.
Check out their anti-blockage campaign webpage here.
Amid thousands of reports of clogged sewage systems from wet wipes and fatbergs comes a new (maybe?) knight and shining armor: European company, Natracare, has released a brand new wipe that claims to be plastic free and biodegradable. Water UK set in place a set of stringent “flushable” regulations and according to the “moist tissue” packaging, the product is safe to flush. While we don’t know the exact methods and tests that are conducted to test flushability, Water UK reported that after testing the Natracare moist tissue, they concluded that the product is “100 per cent paper tissue and plastic free, marine friendly and compostable”.
Could these be the answer to our prayers? Or are they too good to be true? Only time and more tests will tell!
Wessex Water Services, a water supply and sewage utility company in South West England, has a modest social media fan following. The company uses their platform to educate communities and spread the word about the detrimental effects that wet wipes have on sewer systems world wide.
After dealing with several previous hefty sewage clogs from the non-flushables, Wessex Water preached to the public that they do not break down and are not to be flushed. Despite these warnings, the company has recently been faced with another large clog in the system. They continue to share photos as the crews remove the mess of wipes from the system in order to further spread the word to stop flushing non-flushables.
“75% of sewer blockages are caused by disposable items, such as wet wipes, being flushed down the toilet. Our team recently came across these wet wipes in #Amesbury” – Wessex Water
A Northeast Florida community owned utility company, JEA, created a clever new video, “Invasion of the Fatbergs”, to educate the public on the harm that flushing non-flushables has on the sewage systems. The video is a spinoff of a horror film which shows a happy, perfect town being invaded by large sewer “creatures”.
On the landing page for the new video, JEA brings awareness to the materials that cause fatbergs, like baby wipes, paper towels, floss, feminine hygiene products, clumping cat litter, condoms, grease, oil, and cooking fat.
“Remember, what goes down might just come back up.” – Invasion of the Fatbergs
Wet wipe manufacturers in the UK will now be able to display a “Fine to Flush” logo on their packages if they pass strict new tests set in place by the Scottish Water Industry. Although the specifics of the scientific tests were not mentioned, industry officials state that the new label will let consumers know which specific wet wipes do not contain plastic and are (supposedly) safe to flush.
The new standard came after massive fatbergs have been surfacing throughout the UK, making news headlines and bringing awareness to the issue across the globe. According to Scottish Water, they reportedly encounter a whopping 95 FOG clogs per day, costing them millions per year to clear from sewer systems.
“We all have a part to play in looking after the water cycle. Anything which encourages people to think about their responsibility is welcome. Our sewer response teams deal with the consequences of people flushing the wrong items down the toilet – items like wipes, cotton buds and sanitary products – on a daily basis. We hope this new official industry Fine to Flush standard will help cut consumer confusion and lead to a reduction in blockages.” – Peter Farrer, Scottish Water COO
Stuart Magoon, Assistant Division Manager of Environmental Services with the City of Tacoma, Washington was recently interviewed by K5 News about the damages that wet wipes are causing in residential and city sewer systems. In the video, Magoon shows K5 News the Bar Screen at their facility which runs 24/7 to pull debris out of the sewer line that won’t make it through the treatment process. The plant spends about $100,000 each year to deal with the problem – which consists of collecting, cleaning and disposing of all the debris. He also explains that not only is city infrastructure at risk, but so are individual homes. By flushing non-flushable wet wipes and putting grease and oil down drains, homeowners are taking a gamble with the health of their sewer piping. When asked why wet wipes aren’t flushable, Magoon states that they aren’t biodegradable and when they mix with other things in the sewer they cause a huge problem.
Outfitted with shovels and pickaxes, crews spend 8 weeks tackling a monster blob of wet-wipes and grease in South West England sewers.
Charlie Ewart, the lucky finder of the smelly mass of wipes and grease, weighs in on the moment he came across the fatberg, “I saw it and thought: ‘What on earth?’ It was completely unexpected,” Ewart said. “It’s really eerie in that bit of the sewer and it does look like something out of a horror scene, all congealed and glossy and matted together with all kinds of things.”
Ewart discovered the mass below the elegant seafront town of Sidmouth. The 64-meter mess was found stuck in the sewage holding tank, which was built in the Victorian era. At the end of the Esplanade lies the pumping station in which the sewage flows to after passing through the holding tank. The holding tank has been brewing the mass for an estimated 2 years, and people of the area have reported that it has caused a smell to surface.
South West Water’s director of wastewater, Andrew Roantree stated that they were used to dealing with clogs from flushed items like condoms, nappies and sanitary products, but the introduction of the wet-wipe to the sewers was a whole new ball game. “The proliferation of wet wipe-type products has started to generate a real problem,” said Roantree. “The wet wipes tend to create a matrix that all these other things get caught up in.” In a kind of snowball effect, the wet wipes congeal with fats, oil and grease, gradually forming a hard mass.
Aldi, an Australian Supermarket chain, has slashed its plans to sell wet wipes marked as “flushable” after the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) and Aldi shoppers raised concern about the product’s ability to break down in the sewer.
The concern began when Aldi released its “Special Buys” list of upcoming deals which included the “Green Action flushable wet wipe”. Aldi customers took to Facebook to voice their concerns about the Supermarket selling wet wipes marked as “flushable”, noting that wet wipes are a hazard to the wastewater process. News Corp Australia spoke with Aldi representatives and the company responded, “While there is currently no Australian standard for flushability, this product has been tested to the EDINA and INDA International guidelines, passing flushability and biodegradability tests.” However, they decided to not release the product in stores as they worked with the ACCC on a solution.
“The ACCC is already pursuing alleged misleading ‘flushable’ claims more generally, with two proceedings currently before the Federal Court against Pental and Kimberly-Clark Australia Pty Ltd.”
The town of Garner, North Carolina was alerted to a massive sanitary sewer overflow from a manhole on U.S. Highway 70 West at 9am last Saturday morning. Crews worked tirelessly to clean up the 3,000 gallon spill until it was finally resolved by 2pm. The crews released information about the clog and deemed the culprit to be wipes and grease.
The City of Raleigh has begun urging its residents to not flush wet wipes down the sewer in order to prevent these massive sewage clogs and dangerous overflows.
That’s right – of all the brands marketing their wet wipes as ‘flushable’ in the UK, not one has passed the water industry’s disintegration tests, reports BBC.
Last year, the UK government requested that wipes manufacturers and water companies find a common ground and create an agreeable flushable standard for the industry. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in their efforts. Manufacturers of the wipes insist that flushable wipes aren’t the problem, while water companies push back stating that manufacturers flushability tests aren’t stringent enough and in the end only pee, poo and paper should be flushed.
Scientists at WRC, a water-testing laboratory in Swindon, carry out tests on wet wipes to assess their ability to disintegrate when they are flushed into the sewers. They put wipes into conical flasks full of water and rotate them on a shaking platform – which they believe mimics the turbulence of water conditions in a sewer.Using this technique, they have found that none of the wipes marked “flushable” which are currently available for sale in the UK pass the test.
Indiana Plumber, Jack Hope with Hope Plumbing, warns his customers and all wet wipes users about the heavy costs that flushing wipes down the toilet can incur. He recalls that nearly one-third of all calls his company responds to are wet-wipes related clogs. Hope says, “If you catch it early we can come out there and snake it and it is a minimal charge you know somewhere between $100 and $400. Worst case scenario, you end up having to replace a sewer line and depending on where that is it could range anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000.” Hope recommends disposing of wipes in the trash can to avoid these hefty fines and damages in the future.
A recent customer of Hope Plumbing, Amy Tenney, warns friends and other mothers everywhere that flushable wipes are simply not flushable. Tenney says that she was just following the packaging on her ‘flushable’ wipes when she ended up with a clog in her sewage pipes. Amy says she now warns her neighbors about flushing the wipes, “I was like I don’t want anybody else and I know how many moms I know to buy them in Costco in bulk and it’s like I don’t want theirs exploding so it kind of alarmed the whole street of other moms like just don’t do it as much.”
700 volunteers surveyed 500 sites across the Irish coastline for the 2018 Coastwatch Shore Survey which took place last month. Their consistent findings across the board were wet wipes contaminating beaches and ocean waters.
Where are these wipes coming from? In the past several years, Ireland has built many new sewage treatment plants in hopes to combat the increased amount of waste – but that’s only part of the issue. The reason wet wipes are ending up in oceans and across the coastline is because sewage treatment plants are being clogged with trash and wet wipes and the waste is being forced out to the coast.
In spite of more sewage treatment plants being built in Ireland in recent years, wet wipes are causing problems in sewerage, blocking pipes and increasingly ending up on coastlines, according to Coastwatch co-ordinator Karin Dubsky.
In pipework they form long “ropes” clogging up systems, many of which ultimately end up in the coastal environment. “They appear like a piece of grey rope on the shores. People don’t realize what they are,” she added.
Read more about what the Coastwatch Shore Survey uncovered, here.
There’s no denying it: plastic waste is a huge problem in today’s society- ending up in our landfills, water supply and oceans while harming humans and animals alike.
So what’s that got to do with wipes? Wet-wipes contain non-biodegradable plastic fibers that allow them to maintain their integrity in various solutions. When disposed of properly (in the trash) the single-use convenience items end up in landfills, further contributing to the waste epidemic. When disposed of improperly (down the toilet) wet wipes cause huge problems and expensive blockages in residential sewer lines and municipal pipes as well as wastewater treatment facilities.
According to BBC News, the UK government has plans in order to eliminate plastic single-use waste products, which would include wet wipes – “So manufacturers will either have to develop plastic-free wipes or consumers will have to go without.”
Austria based company, the Lenzing Group, creates eco-friendly fibers for various applications. Their new product called “Veocel” is made up of a mixture of cellulosic Lyocell fibers and wood pulp that easily and safely break down in a much shorter period of time.
Currently, wet wipes are produced using non-biodegradable synthetic fibers like polyester, which are difficult to breakdown when flushed and also leave microscopic pieces of plastic in our water supply even after it’s treated. In contrast, the new Veocel Lyocell fibers are reported to be a sustainable and botanic alternative to the current synthetics and also provide enhanced absorbency and natural smoothness.
Not only do the Veocel Lyocell fibers claim to be eco-friendly and sustainable, in recent tests the products have been shown to reach 90% disintegration within 30 minutes – which far surpasses the flushability guidelines set in place by INDA today.
“We take a proactive approach and lay the foundation for flushable wet wipes that combine convenience with environmental responsibility, so that we can bring optimal quality and performance to flushable nonwoven products, as well as other nonwoven segments” – Wolfgang Plasser, vice president of Global Business Management Nonwovens, Lenzing AG.
Now here’s an example of Sewage Superheroes! Scuba divers were tasked to take a deep dive into raw sewage to unclog the system. After navigating down about 80 – 90 feet down through sewage, they discovered a monster of a clog primarily comprised of flushable wet wipes.
How did it get so bad! Culprit: “Flushable” Wipes. Not so flushable! The Charleston Water System of North Carolina, warns local residents of the impact these wipes are having to the sewage system. Their advice is simple: “Don’t flush stuff like this.”
Wet Wipe Flushability – The million dollar topic in the Plumbing and Wastewater industry today
Terry’s Plumbing, a company in Pittsburg, PA was curious to find out the answer for themselves and set out to follow the path of wet wipes from start to finish.
First off, why are wet wipes suddenly all the rage? There’s two main reasons: convenience and comfort/cleanliness – both factors that users claim to experience from their usage in the restroom. So what makes them so harmful? While convenience and comfort for the consumer are a huge plus, the risks out weigh the benefits. The harm being done to sewer systems around the world is not only very costly to cities, but the increase in waste from the thick wet wipes is piling up in and causing dangerous backup and sewage spills.
What did Terry’s Plumbing find in their exploration of the wet wipe life cycle? Sure, if you’re talking literally about a single wipe being able to physically move down the drain, then yes, it’s flushable. However, once the wipe reaches underground pipes it has the potential of getting stuck during transit on infiltrating tree roots in the ground. Unlike regular toilet paper, which breaks down in less than a day of being submerged in water, the wet wipes don’t dissolve for many months, causing the build up in the resident’s yard even before it can get to the treatment facility.
Should the wet wipes make it past this point, they will eventually reach the local sewage treatment plant. Typical city infrastructure isn’t designed to handle large amounts of trash and other unflushables – and this is where the expensive clogs happen. Wet wipes mix together with fats, oils, grease and trash and these clumps continue to build up for years on end. To date, the largest fatberg buildup was 15 tons and the size of a large school bus.
The fact that many of these wipes are being marketed as flushable, keeps them competitive with their paper rival as users are not forced to find some alternative means of disposing of them.
Two representatives from EurEau, the voice of Europe’s drinking water and wastewater service operators, Oliver Loebel and Maxime Bineau, discuss the growing concern with plastics polluting the water supply and the problem wipes serve in the debacle.
“The SUP [Single Use Plastics] Directive proposed by the European Commission is an opportunity to mitigate marine plastic pollution, and improve the general state of our environment. While this goal is laudable, effective measures are also needed to prevent another kind of insidious pollution, closer to the European consumer.”
The article goes on to challenge the Directive as it points out its flaws in failing to combat a major source of plastics in the water – “flushable” wet wipes: “The SUP Directive fails to tackle the impact of some SUP on our waste water infrastructure. Some plastics can find their way through water pipes through user behaviour or inappropriate labelling by manufacturers.”
Loebel and Bineau point out the fact that many manufacturers falsely advertise wet wipes as “flushable”, when in reality the majority of the products contain plastic fibers to help them resist breakdown in aqueous solutions. In fact, in the UK, 75% of identifiable pipe-clogging material was found to be from wet wipes alone. The authors also bring up an important point – even if wipes were indeed able to break down once flushed, they would still pose a significant threat to marine life and human health- “If wet wipes really were to decompose as claimed by manufacturers, they would release a substantial amount of micro-plastics into waste water, contaminating sewage sludge or worse, be emitted directly into the environment.”