Third Time’s a Charm for Flushable Wipes

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | April 14, 2012

Third draft of flushability guidelines is expected to be finalized this fall.

For nearly a decade, INDA has been working with its European counterpart, EDANA and both organizations’ member companies to develop comprehensive flushability guidelines for the disposable wipes industry. Defining flushability—and educating consumers about what is safe to flush—is vital to the success of the wipes industry, which has already faced backlash from communities in North Carolina and Maine, which have unjustly blamed the flushing of flushable wipes on sewage problems.

INDA and EDANA first began working on the guidelines in 2004 with a special flushability task force featuring 31 companies. The committees’ first set of guidelines was published in 2008 and then updated in 2009. A third round of changes, designed to simplify the guidelines and make them even more user-friendly is set to be published this fall.

Companies involved in this effort, which is about education as much as it is about anything, include roll goods makers targeting the wipes market, marketers of consumer products including wipes, converters of wiping materials and raw material producers. The guideliness cover local systems, septic systems and surface water, ensuring that all three paths are covered.

In the decade since the industry has started working on these guidelines, several hurdles have been faced. A community in North Carolina blamed flushable wipes for sewage back up and even considered fining residents for flushing wipes. Legislators in California and New Jersey briefly considered bills that would require the use of a single standard to determine the flushability for consumer products to reduce the instances of sewer or septic blockages, sanitary sewer overflows and sewer or septic back-ups in residences, which occur as a result of the improper disposable of non-dispersible or non-degradable products. Similarly, Maine lawmakers proposed—but tabled—legislation against providing the packaging or labeling of consumer products for distribution if the package or label states the product is flushable or safe for sewer unless the product meets acceptance criteria for flushability.

These proposed legislations have been presented despite the fact that studies show that wipes represent a negligible percentage of flushed products compared to paper towels, facial tissue and other products that are deemed not flushable. Still, determined not to let the wipes industry take the fall for these products, the nonwovens industry, led by INDA and EDANA continues to work on these regulations. The hope is that creating a clear definition of flushabilityand partnering with certified laboratories—in Europe and the U.S.—will help free wipes from these stigma.
While the initial two sets of guidelines provide a three tier set of guidelines to determine flushability, the next round of guidelines will reportedly streamline down to one tier, making a standard set of testing to deem a product flushable. While the simplification is the biggest change in these guidelines, INDA officials say there will also be a number of more subtle changes to help defend the wipes, and the testing method from further scrutiny.

As we wait for these guidelines to be finalized, HPCW sat down with INDA director of technical affairs Steve Ogle on his association’s latest efforts when it comes to flushable wipes.

NWI: Please discuss INDA’s recent efforts with the flushability guidelines? How will the next round of changes make the document different than the existing document?

S.O.: The nonwovens industry undertook the initiative to develop guidelines for assessing flushability between 2004 and 2008 when the first edition was published. Until that time, there was not a consistent or widely accepted definition of what constituted a ‘flushable’ nonwoven consumer product. As a result, companies used their own definitions and methods to determine the flushability of their products. End users and other stakeholders had no single reference from which to assess the flushability of products. This lack of consistency can lead to confusion in the marketplace and a lack of clarity for when it is appropriate for products to be disposed of via the wastewater system.

We knew the guidance would require a living document capable of change. The second edition was published in 2009 from what we learned while working with Waste Water Treatment (WWT) Professionals in the Netherlands, the US and the UK. We are also learning from using the guidance and edition three will be significantly different. It drops the tiered testing approach for a straight line systems testing scheme. This approach maintains the best of the testing methods that comply with the real world disposal pathway and requires a yes / no answer to each question of compliance along that pathway. As a result, this edition will be much easier to use for labs and manufacturers and easier to understand by all stakeholders.

NWI: Why did you guys feel it was necessary to make these changes?

S.O.: While working with the WWTs we have learned that a common issue for all is the clogging of municipal pumps. By adding a pump test as a requirement in the testing protocol, we can assure that our products will not be the cause. The change will also improve the stakeholders’ assessment because of the straight-line approach.

NWI: Please describe (in depth) your efforts battling the Maine legislation. What exactly would this legislation have done? How harmful would it have been to the industry had this legislation been passed?
S.O.: INDA and member companies met with lawmakers and wastewater control agencies to explain how state-by-state regulation of flushability is premature. State regulation cannot realistically keep up with innovation in wipes’ design as well as the wastewater industry—both of which are accounted for in INDA’s flushability guidelines.Legislation, as proposed, would have fined companies for labeling products as flushable. These products are a very small volume of consumer products and, as our studies have shown, not the problem. This legislation may force makers to remove all labeling related to the preferred disposal method leaving it up to the consumer to decide. This would have made the problem worse not better. After working with the WWT professionals and discussing the situation with legislators, the Government stakeholders now seem to understand that the consumer needs to be brought into the discussion about the proper disposal of “do not flush” products.Shared responsibility for proper disposal of these products is the best chance communities have for avoiding damage to wastewater infrastructure.

NWI: Are you seeing any similar laws crop up elsewhere?

S.O.: We first saw legislation proposed in California, Holland, New Jersey, the UK and then Maine. To my knowledge, no states or countries have yet enacted flushability legislation.

NWI: How important do you consider these guidelines to be to the global wipes industry?

S.O.: The geographic scope of the guidelines include North America and Europe. The methodology and science behind this document might be a good starting point for other parts of the world, but it would require a close study of their systems before we could determine how applicable it would actually be.

NWI: Do you think there is a lot of room for flushable products?

S.O.: Yes, our data shows that of all the nonwoven products made in North America only 0.5% are flushable moist toilet tissue (MTT). There is a lot of room for growth but all the products must be compatible with the guidance document.

NWI: Do you envision another round of changes after this?

S.O.: The guidance document was conceived as a living document so that changes could be made. The nonwovens industry is continually innovating. Changes in technology will make MTT even more compatible with current sewer systems and will necessitate changes to the document. The WWT and collection systems are also continually improving to keep up with the demands and needs of the growing residential areas. That may also drive the need to make changes to the guidance document.
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