Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Not so flushable flushables are clogging up the works

Call them clogables. Five minutes swirling around at low speed in my water-filled Kitchen Aide five-quart mixer, neither of two popular brands of so-called “flushable wipes” disintegrated. The fabric sheets were mostly intact.

Meanwhile, toilet tissue put to the same low-speed test (surely more turbulent than a slow slog down a sewer pipe) was obliterated.

It was science at work. My home kitchen experiment proved that the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department was on to something last week when it issued a press release begging county residents “to help reduce and eliminate costly clogs within the county’s nearly 6,800 miles of sewer lines due to ‘flushable’ wipes.”

The “nonwoven fabrics” industry pushed back, telling my colleague Doug Hanks that the county was fostering a “tremendous misconception” by lumping in their benign product in with baby wipes, paper towels, feminine-hygiene and other stuff jamming sewer pipes and choking sewage treatment plants.

Except flushable wipes aren’t. Well, to be sure, they’re flushable. My old gym socks are technically flushable. Junior’s pet hamsters are flushable. But the term “flushable” intimates that the product won’t wreak havoc with the plumbing.

Actually, the county agency’s request for cooperation was mild compared to anti-flushable campaigns in other communities. Wyoming, Minnesota, is suing six makers of the unflushable flushables for $6 million. Homeowners have filed at least four class action suits against the industry.

In April, a measure was introduced in the New York City Council to prohibit advertising wipes as flushable. The New York Times reported that in the last five years, the city had spent $18 million repairing pipes and gears jammed with huge, grotesque, impenetrable clusters of wipes held together by congealed grease.

Which sounds like what county workers are encountering in Miami-Dade’s sewer works. Similar problems have been reported in Hawaii, Alaska, Wisconsin, California, West Virginia, Maine. Massive clogs have fouled sewer systems in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney. London sewer officials said wipes and fat were the basic ingredient in the infamous 10-ton “fatberg” that cracked the pipes under Chelsea in April.

The $367-million-a-year flushable wipes industry denies culpability. But in January, a Consumer Reports lab test found wipes were not so degradable. When Vancouver sent wipes that had been dipped in red or orange fabric dye though the city’s sewer system, they arrived at the treatment plant intact, snagged on the intake screens like some awful art project.

Just last month, under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, Nice-Pak Products agreed to stop advertising their wet wipes as safe for flushing into sewer and septic tank systems. The FTC issued a statement declaring, “If you claim a product is flushable, it needs to flush in the real world, without clogging household plumbing or sewer and septic systems.”

Miami-Dade’s request that residents “please be mindful of what is flushed down the toilet” seems way too tepid, considering the escalating public costs attributed to wipes, which, after all, didn’t even exist 25 years ago. Which are no more essential than they are flushable.