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February 26, 2015

Flushable wipes causing clogs in homes, municipal sewers

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FREDERICTON • Lynn Brooks was not very happy when wastewater from her washing machine backed up into a nearby bathtub, signalling something was very wrong with the septic system in her rural home. 
Following a visit from the plumber and a $200 bill, Brooks, a former resident of New Brunswick who now lives in Nova Scotia, discovered the problem was the "flushable" wipes she had been using in her home to cut down on toilet paper.
"I showed the plumber the box where it says ‘sewer and septic safe’ and he said, ‘Lady, I just hauled out a bundle of them clogged up in your pipe. And you’re not my first customer’," she said in an interview on Monday.
"I was incensed. The plumber wrote out the problem on my bill, and I fired it off to the manufacturer of the wipes. It took a couple of months, but the company reimbursed the entire amount of the bill. I have never used the wipes again."
So-called flushable items are part of growing problem that is giving homeowners headaches and costing municipalities millions of dollars annually as noxious, non-dissolvable debris clogs up the pumps and pipes of sewer and septic systems.
Fredericton has gone public with the trouble and costs it is facing because of the supposedly disposable products, which workers have had to manually haul out of sewage systems in slimy masses. 
In several large cities, the buildup has produced huge, floating "fatbergs" of wipes coated with grease, cooking fats, hair, condoms and hygiene products that glob together in the sewers.
The City of Fredericton has launched a public appeal for people to stop flushing garbage down their toilets, even products that are supposed to be safe for sewer systems.
"As of late last week, we had 19,000 hits on this issue via Facebook," said Neil Thomas, Fredericton’s senior water and sewer engineer, who has been doing media interviews about the subject.
"A lot of people I know through work and life outside work have listened to the news this is generating, and they’re saying, ‘Wow, we simply did not realize that whatever you put in the toilet just does not magically go away."
Barry Orr, spokesman for the Ontario-based Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG), said Canada is leading an international effort to establish and enforce standards on the multi-billion-dollar wipe industry that will spell out the meaning of "flushable."
"The essence of the problem is that toilets are not garbage cans," Orr said in an interview.
"There has been a lot of attention focused on the word ‘flushable’ over the past 10 years. The biggest problem is the fact that products are being sold with a label called ‘flushable,’ and there is no standard or regulation on that term. Baby wipes are clearly not flushable, but they seem similar to a flushable wipes, and people start to think everything is flushable. There’s a lot of confusion."
Orr said Canada is at the forefront of developing a standard for flushable items through the Geneva-based International Standards Organization. He said the first meeting on the subject is scheduled for May in London, Ont. Other countries involved include the United States and the United Kingdom.
"It is now costing municipalities in North America billions of dollars to deal with this problem," Orr said.
"Civic officials are putting more and more money into equipment to deal with this, and it is not sustainable."
Special pumps and grinders are being developed for municipal systems, but Orr and Thomas said they are very expensive.
In Fredericton, city workers recently hauled 3.5 metric tonnes of wipes out of the Garden Creek lagoon at a cost of about $28,000.
"Sewage treatment systems, be it on-site septic or a municipal system, are designed to treat human waste and toilet paper, and that is it," Thomas said.
"When you flush all this debris and garbage into them, particularly the wipes, they cause a lot of problems. It’s expensive and it is a nasty business."
In both the U.S. and Canada, manufacturers say they voluntarily test products for flushability, but federal laws don’t require third-party assessment or verification.
Eric Bruner of Kimberly-Clark says his company – maker of the popular Cottonelle wipes – works closely with communities.
"Kimberly-Clark is committed to working with the waste water community to ensure that sewage systems work properly and to educate consumers about what is safe to flush and what isn’t," he said in a recent interview from the company’s headquarters in Dallas.
"But if we label something safe to flush, we stand by that. We put these products through a litany of industry tests. ... I certainly know our products perform well in lab tests and field tests to ensure flushability."
Bruner and officials at Nice-Pak, which bills itself "the world’s leading producer of wet wipes," say 90 per cent of what public utilities deal with in terms of clogs involve products that absolutely should not be flushed down the toilet, and are labelled as such.
"They’re finding things like paper towels, feminine hygiene products, diapers and baby wipes. What we believe is that it’s very important for consumers to read the labels," Bruner said.
Orr agreed that baby wipes are being flushed down the toilet and causing clogs, but he insists personal wipes are also part of the problem.
MESUG members set up traps across Ontario municipalities, Orr said, and they caught hundreds of flushable wipes. 
Thomas said the wipe problem is affecting municipalities across New Brunswick, not just Fredericton.
"Just because it can be flushed doesn’t mean it should be," he said.
"You can flush a cellphone or a watch if you want to, but that doesn’t mean it should be. They are sold as convenience items, and convenient disposal is part of that sell by the wipe manufacturers. They are well aware of our municipal position on wipes. However, it’s a large business component for them, apparently, and we are not seeing a change in attitude in package labelling yet. Hopefully that will be obtained, though."


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