Nondispersible Wipes Turning Sewers Into Nightmares Nationwide

By Fritz Egger
Director, Asia, Pacific & Middle East Operations

Increasingly, wipes are causing serious issues for wastewater treatment system operators. Many of the wipes entering the sewage system are not dispersible and technically not flushable. The term “flushable wipes” was spawned in the 1980s, when a consumer products company brought a latex bonded airlaid wet wipe with polyester fibers onto the market. The wipe was considered “flushable” since it could transit through the toilet, but with all those polyester fibers it was not dispersible.

Wipes use is predominant in the U.S., Western Europe, Japan and Israel, but is expanding on a global scale. In addition, the definition of what is flushable is not subject to industry guidelines, consumer instructions, or government oversight. With the explosion of wipes on the market there is significant consumer confusion about what is and is not flushable. Baby wipes, as an example, are not flushable.

As sewers around the world turn into solid waste conveyance systems — we all have to work harder to keep sewage flowing. As a Director for JWC, it’s my responsibility to ensure we continue innovating and upgrading our solids reduction and removal systems to reliably handle all types of debris, including this new generation of wipes getting flushed.

De-ragging of pumps, valves and other equipment is adding maintenance and higher energy costs for sewer agencies around the world. For example, the city of Vancouver, Washington, which removed 429 tons of non-flushables in 2012, has gone to great lengths in documenting specific costs associated with this crisis:

  • $78,000 per year, incremental crew labor for pump de-ragging
  • $30,000 per year, incremental electricity costs for running clogged pumps
  • $900,000 for new pumps to handle these materials
Researchers in Maine pull wipes from a sewer in order to identify and classify each one.

Additionally, troubleshooting and repairing equipment exposes workers to hazardous conditions, including needle sticks from hypodermic needles wrapped up in the rag balls.

Introduced in the early 2000s, wet wipe use has exploded. The disposable wipes industry, which consists of consumer and commercial application’s, is estimated at $6 billion. And forecasts estimate the rapid growth trend will continue.

Three field studies of pump station inlet screens conducted by the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) and wastewater agencies have shown only between 8 and 12 percent of flushed materials are products labeled “flushable.” Significant portions included baby wipes (18 percent), non-flushable household wipes (12-14 percent) and non-flushable feminine hygiene products (13-18 percent).

Many agencies are beginning to tabulate the costs associated with the trend of rapidly accelerating wipes use and several groups are working on solutions. Examples abound:

  • WERF, in coordination with sewer agencies, engineers and equipment manufacturers, is conducting experiments on the impact of wipes on sewer systems
  • The Water Environment Federation formed a work group on “Non-Dispersibles.” Nearly 100 WEF volunteers, several wipe makers, as well as pump, screen and grinder manufacturers are working on solutions
  • Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) implemented an outreach campaign entitled “What2Flush” and allows other agencies to request and use the materials for their customers
  • In Maine, an award winning public education campaign called “Save your Pipes: Don’t Flush Baby Wipes” was launched. It’s funded by INDA and wastewater agencies
  • In Santa Ana, CA, a pump station with dry-prime pumps was severely impacted by wipes. Installation of a twin shafted sewage grinder remediated the issue
  • Kimberly Clark has introduced a new substrate (the portion of the wipe which typically does not disperse), with further product development coming
  • Wastewater associations prompted Costco and their supplier Nice-Pak to place a larger “Do Not Flush” symbol on packets of baby wipes. Nice-Pak came through, but other manufacturers have not followed suit
  • WEFTEC will host a special session dedicated to wipes. On Wednesday morning look for session #500 – Non-Dispersibles, 3Ps and You: Who Decides What To Flush?

How can this crisis be mitigated? There are three key tactics the wastewater community seems to be moving towards — public education, better technology and, as a last resort, new fees. New regulations or an outright ban are also mentioned, but seem unlikely — consumers love wipes, so they’re here to stay.

The single most important aspect is aggressive public education to re-teach consumers what to flush (and what not to) – and is the most expensive tactic. Investment in technology and research is in order, both for the wipes industry and wastewater equipment manufacturers. Finally, sewer agencies already face a lack of resources, so a package fee on wipes or increased sewer fees may be needed to deal with the problem.

As with any crisis — it will take all of us working together to develop a suite of solutions. Collaboration is essential among the stakeholders — wastewater agencies and professionals, engineers, equipment manufacturers, and wipes manufacturers.

Mr. Egger is also a board member for the Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association.