By Shelly Oren
The coronavirus has exacerbated a problem that has been congealing in pipes across the country for some time—the disposal of wipes down the toilet along with other substances that are clogging wastewater systems.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Americans have increasingly been flushing household and personal wipes, paper towels and other materials down their toilets, which has brought renewed attention to the issues sewer systems are facing.
In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a press release urging Americans to only flush toilet paper, not household wipes or other products, as these items can damage plumbing, sewer and septic systems.
While a flushed product may clear a toilet bowl, it may not go through pipes successfully or break down in the way that toilet paper does. Addressing the resulting backups is expensive and draws resources away from ensuring that wastewater management systems are working properly. As the EPA notes, fully operational wastewater services are essential to containing COVID-19 and preventing exposure to other public health risks.
State and local governments have been grappling with this issue for years, including through public information campaigns and legislation to clarify labeling and intended use for products. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection stresses that wipes, even those that say they are flushable, enter the sewer system and can mix with oil, grease and other substances to create “fatbergs,” or large masses of disposed substances that have been found in sewer systems throughout the world.
Since 2015, at least eight states and the District of Columbia have considered legislation concerning the labeling of nonwoven disposable products, such as many household wipes, to curb the flushing of non-flushable items.
The Council of D.C. passed legislation in 2016 that prohibits nonwoven disposable products from being advertised or labeled as flushable unless they meet certain specifications, and requires nonwoven disposable products that are not flushable to be labeled as such. A manufacturer challenged the law in 2017, with the court granting a motion for preliminary injunction and acknowledging that the labeling requirements could be modified during the law’s implementation process in order to avoid First Amendment rights violations. In 2019, the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment proposed labeling requirements.
More recently, the Washington Legislature passed legislation in 2020 requiring non-flushable disposable wipes to be labeled as “Do Not Flush.” The Minnesota Legislature introduced a bill in February that prohibits nonwoven disposable products from being labeled as flushable unless they meet certain standards.
Across the country, water and wastewater utilities have launched informational campaigns on a variety of platforms to alert customers to the problems associated with flushing wipes and other items down their toilets.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for example, recently took to Twitter to remind people about what is safe to flush by posting a video demonstrating how wipes don’t break down in the toilet. Similarly, KC Water in Missouri posted a YouTube video informing customers that wipes don’t dissolve. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District shared an infographic reminding the public that even though toilet paper remains scarce in stores, no other products are safe to flush down the toilet.
By sharing best practices on what and what not to flush, state and local governments, utility companies and industry associations are working together to ensure that wastewater systems are functioning properly during this critical time.
Shelly Oren is a research analyst in NCSL's Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.