Miami-Dade County’s sewer department launched a campaign Tuesday against “flushable wipes,” joining a national effort to keep the popular products out of the toilet.
“It’s hard to believe the kind of problems that these things are creating,” said county sewage chief Lester Sola. “There are some pump stations where we have to go almost on a daily basis to solve these issues.”
Cities and counties around the country have complained of epic clogs as the toilet-paper alternative holds firm inside the bowels of sewer systems and pump stations. With sales on the rise, sewer engineers say the problem is only getting worse.
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The wipes industry insists its rigorous “flushability” test protects sewer systems from problems, but that wipes get blamed for back-ups caused by items that never should have been flushed in the first place. Dave Rousse, head of a wipes trade group, cited forensic tests on screens in pump-out stations, where flushable wipes were the suspected problem. Instead, about half of the material came from paper towels, followed by non-flushable baby wipes and feminine-hygiene products.
“There’s a tremendous misconception of what’s at issue here,” said Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, based in Cary, North Carolina. He pointed to Miami-Dade’s own news release, which warns of clogs caused by “flushable” wipes but cites as culprits pre-moistened towelettes, baby wipes, cleaning wipes, paper towels and feminine products. The release urged residents to stick with toilet paper and that “all other products be disposed of in the trash.”
“I think it mimics a common misconception that anything that passes through the toilet is flushable,” Rousse said of Miami-Dade’s news release. “When, in fact, whatever is truly flushable is what’s been designed to be flushable.”
Rousse said industry standards for the “flushable” label require use of a highly engineered fabric designed to stay strong until it hits the toilet water and then is washed down the pipes.
But government engineers across the country have warned of a growing wipes threat. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies cites “the far-reaching impacts of wipes and other products” in promoting a consumer campaign that included a visit by Dr. (Mehmet) Oz to New York’s sewer system and a rock video by a New Hampshire high school that includes the lyric: “There’s always some company tempting somebody into flushing something that they know is wrong.”
On Tuesday, Sola released a collection of photos from county pump stations that he said were temporarily disabled because of wipe clogs. Miami-Dade has not yet seen a sewage-system overflow from the wipes, but he said the images of large pipes jammed with material show a system at risk.
The rift touches on a sensitive topic for consumers willing to pay to use more than mere toilet paper in the bathroom. Charmin touts its 20-pack Freshmates as “flushable wet wipes that give you a cleaner clean than dry toilet paper alone.” It encourages customers to “pair” Freshmates with normal Charmin for the “freshest and cleanest clean.”
A string of reviewers on charmin.com gave the product five stars, posting photos of themselves holding a Freshmates box in the bathroom. Many touted the benefits for children learning how to use the toilet.
“I love using wipes for myself and for my kids,” wrote Tara R. “My husband also loves them too.”
The privilege doesn’t come cheap. Walmart advertises a 12-roll pack of Charmin toilet paper for $11.97 (about .03 cents a sheet) compared to $23.94 for a refill pack of 480 Charmin Freshmate Flushables (about 5 cents a wipe).
Sola said he wasn’t prepared to offer residents a middle ground in terms of what products labeled flushable may actually be acceptable for the county’s pipes. He forwarded a Consumer Reports video showing a so-called flushable wipe holding its shape while being agitated by a chef’s mixer.
He said he hopes the new campaign will be as effective as Miami-Dade’s ongoing effort to convince home cooks that kitchen drains are no place for grease and pan drippings.
“We’re trying to get the word out on the wipes,” he said. “If we stay silent on the matter, and [residents] just rely on what they’re reading and all of a sudden they have sewage all over their house — then we really haven’t done our part.”