Experts wipe away illusions about flushing wipes


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – “Out of sight, out of mind.” 

That expression doesn’t hold true when it comes to stuff flushed down the toilet. Everything that goes down that drain ends up somewhere else, and consumers pay for flushing the wrong things down the toilet.

Every day, the City of Raleigh treats 48 million gallons of wastewater. Mixed in are tons of material that should never end up there.

There’s a constant stream of non-disposable material extracted at the water treatment plant.

“They are fabric wipes and paper towels and things that don’t break down,” said senior utility analyst Ed Buchan.

Non-flushable items have to go somewhere, so it’s all loaded into a dumpster and trucked off to landfills.

A lot of that material is non-flushable fabric wipes.

“Non-flushable wipes are essentially indestructible pieces of plastic — never designed to break apart and never do break apart,” said David Rousse. He is the president of INDA, the association of non-woven fabrics industry.

CBS 17 conducted a test. Toilet paper, flushable wipes, and non-flushable cleaning wipes were all placed in a bowl of water. The toilet paper started to fall apart almost immediately after being taken out of the water.

The flushable wipe came apart pretty easily when wet requiring very little effort to shred it.

The cleaning wipe was not affected by water and because it’s a kind of plastic. It stretches when pulled.

Imagine what happens when those pieces of plastic get into the pumps in water treatment systems.

“Those pumps are very expensive and it causes us a lot of maintenance to go out and repair them,” Buchan said.

And when people like Buchan see a huge ball of material entwined around their pumps or clogging up a sewer line, they’re unsure what or who to blame.

“We don’t really know,” Buchan said. “We can’t differentiate what we see in the sewer.”

But, the trade group that represents the wipes industry says it knows what’s in there.

“We’ve actually gone into wastewater treatment plants and pulled apart those dark brown masses of material and analyzed what’s in there,” Rousse said. “Less than 2 percent of what can be identified are flushable wipes.”

A forensic analysis conducted for the industry says most of that debris consists of non-flushable wipes and paper towels.

And there are lots of non-flushable wipes are sold. It’s a $6 billion industry.

“Non-flushable wipes were about 70 percent of all wipes sold,’’ Rousse said. “Flushable wipes only 7 percent.”

Wipes are clogging more than the pumps. They also create sewer line blockages that cost the city of Raleigh about $2,000 in labor every time a line is blocked.

With an estimated 50 blockage-related spills a year, it adds up to at least $100,000 in extra costs all paid for by ratepayers.

“We have to invest a lot of time extra time in maintenance and personnel responding to sewer overflows,” Buchan said.

Because all wipes look the same, the industry is trying to educate consumers by adding a symbol to products that don’t belong in the toilet.

“We are hoping proper display of the do not flush symbol will help,” Rousse said.

Wastewater systems weren’t meant to carry much more than human waste and toilet paper. If there’s an overflow before it reaches the treatment plant, consumers pay for it in repair costs and damage to the environment.

Individuals will also pay for the clog between home and the municipal system. That will be in the form of a plumber.

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