D.C.'s Wipes Law: Flush it or Flaunt It?

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By Amena H. Saiyid

A battle in the District of Columbia over what kinds of disposable wipes can be flushed down the toilet has pitted the city government and municipal wastewater utilities against manufacturers, such as Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Procter & Gamble.

And at least one member of Congress has injected himself into the debate: Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) recently charged that a new District of Columbia law amounted to a ban on flushable wipes, echoing a claim made by manufacturers. Kimberly-Clark, which markets flushable wipes under its Cottonelle, Scott Naturals, and Pull-Ups Big Kid brand names, told Bloomberg BNA in a statement that the “poorly conceived” law could actually worsen the district’s sewer problems by limiting consumer choice and increasing reliance on non-flushable products.

However, backers of the city ordinance, which include the region’s water and wastewater authority, DC Water, say the the law doesn’t impose any ban.

Rather, it directs the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment to write standards for “flushable” wipes, making sure they degrade in sewers in what the law calls a “low period of time” and aren’t made of plastic. These standards would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

“This legislation has nothing to do with banning. It’s a piece of legislation that requires companies to be truthful in advertising, and to not say products are flushable when they are not,” D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) told Bloomberg BNA in a telephone interview.

D.C.'s success in enacting its bill may pave the way for other jurisdictions to do so as well, Cynthia Finley, regulatory affairs director for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA.

Gum Up Sewers

Consumers are largely unaware that most varieties of disposable wipes, such as those used to remove makeup and clean babies’ bottoms, aren’t meant for flushing because they can gum up sewers, leading to blockages that can cost DC Water as much as $50,000 each year to unclog.

Many consumers may not even notice the tiny “do not flush” logo printed at the bottom of most such packages that display a figure dropping a piece of paper in toilet with a slash across it. And they may even be unaware of the existence of wipes that can be flushed, or so some manufacturers claim.

DC Water spokesman Vincent Morris told Bloomberg BNA that the D.C. law merely requires clear, consistent, and prominent labeling for consumers.

“If you examine a packet of wipes, the consumer guidance isn’t clear,” Morris said. “We want it prominently displayed that either it is safe to flush or not to flush.”

To that end, the D.C. law also requires manufacturers to clearly label the non-flushable varieties, including wipes for babies, feminine hygiene, and skincare, which are major culprits in clogging sewer systems.

First of Its Kind

The Nonwoven Disposal Products Act of 2016, the formal name of the D.C. wipes ordinance, is the first of its kind in the nation. Proponents say the law has garnered national attention because it could encourage other cities and states to adopt similar restrictions, creating a patchwork of regulations, which could prove costly for industry.

Other states—California, Maine, Minnesota, and New Jersey—have tried to pass flushable-wipes laws but were unsuccessful, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents municipal wastewater utilities and backs the D.C. law.

NACWA’s goal in backing mandatory standards is to “level the playing field” for all companies, ensuring all wipes labeled “flushable” were actually safe for sewer systems, and those labeled non-flushable wipes are done consistently. “It doesn’t make sense for Kimberly-Clark to oppose mandatory labeling if they are following voluntary guidelines, but wipes imported from China and other countries are not,” Finley said, adding “legislation will not only protect sewer systems, but it will level the playing field for all wipe brands.”

Meanwhile, D.C. is working on draft regulations that it hopes to release for comment as early as this fall and have them in place by the time the law takes effect, Morris said.

Public Education Versus Legislation

Opponents say the law is the wrong approach.

“Public awareness and education, not legislation, is the most effective best way to address these issues,” Tonia Elrod, spokeswoman for the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), which includes members such as Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble.

The association, which is part of a coalition called the Responsible Flushing Alliance, advocates voluntary measures that focus on educating the public about the dangers of non-flushable wipes over the mandatory guidelines that municipal wastewater utilities seek to impose.

A month ago, INDA updated its code of labeling practices to ensure manufacturers make clear which products are not flushable, she said.

Harris, during a July 13 markup of a fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill, warned his colleagues on a House Appropriations panel that “everybody’s going to flush nonflushable wipes” unless the city council works with the committee to find a workable definition for “flushable.” Harris introduced, then withdrew, an amendment to block the D.C. wipes law during that meeting.

Elrod raised the same argument. Companies “may not continue to sell flushable wipes if the definition of flushables is not achievable, or if it is not a viable business for our members,” Elrod said.

Consumers then would have no choice but to use non-flushable wipes that they would continue to discard down the toilet, exacerbating the clogging problem, she added.

Opposition to D.C. Law

Procter & Gamble told Bloomberg BNA July 12 that it would defer to INDA, which has consistently advocated for changing public behavior through education and voluntary industry compliance.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. made no bones about its position on the D.C. wipes law in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

“Kimberly-Clark agrees with INDA and other manufacturers of flushable moist wipes that the DC legislation is poorly conceived since it will not address the District’s sewer system problems and will only serve to worsen the situation and harm consumers in the District, since it may leave them no choice but to turn to using, and flushing, more non-flushable items,” the company said.

Elrod and Kimberly-Clark cited studies characterizing wastewater samples, saying flushable wipes comprised between 2 percent and 8 percent of the total waste found in New York and Maine sewers, respectively.

The bulk of the products found in the sewer drains were paper towels, baby wipes, skincare wipes, facial tissues, feminine hygiene products, Elrod said, adding “none of these products are meant to be flushed.”

The industry won’t get any argument on that front from DC Water, which also is engaged with area wastewater utilities in a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ "protect your pipes” campaign to educate the public about the dangers of flushing medications, wipes, fats and oil grease down the drains.

“All wipes are a problem if they aren’t disposed properly,” Morris said.

Cheh said the industry is presenting a “false dichotomy” by making consumers choose between education and legislation. “This is not a zero-sum game. We can do both,” she said, noting that the district is already involved in a campaign to educate its consumers about what not to flush.

The association rued the city’s “inappropriate” emphasis on flushable wipes.

‘Workable’ Definition

Harris said the city still has time to come up with a workable definition.

Elrod acknowledged that the language in the D.C. law is compatible with efforts the industry is already taking, which include clear labeling of non-flushable items and a guarantee that flushable items be made from 100 percent plant-based cellulose that biodegrades.

“The real solution is to help us all understand what we can flush and what we should not flush,” INDA spokeswoman Elrod told Bloomberg BNA a day before the July 13 debate.

Kimberly-Clark pointed to its Cottonelle wipes, saying their products meet widely accepted industry standards for flushability.

“Our products are engineered to lose strength as they move through properly maintained plumbing, sewage or septic systems,” the company said, defending its advertising claims.

However, Kimberly-Clark and Procter Gamble are facing class action lawsuits in federal district courts from New York residents who alleged the flushable wipes didn’t degrade, but instead caused basement backups and septic system failures.

Cheh said it is up to the companies to make a product that degrades and doesn’t clog up pipes.

“Otherwise, they are making products that are clogging up the system and mislabeling them, and our taxpayers are having to pay to clean up the mess that they have created,” Cheh said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

For More Information

The text of the Nonwoven Products Disposal Act of 2016 is available at http://src.bna.com/qKx

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