The Wipes Fight

How the industry can take on wipes in the waste stream – and win

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The Wipes Fight

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This is the first of a three-part series from JWC Environmental examining wipes in the waste stream. This first installment looks specifically at the growth of disposable wipes usage within the last decade.

Wastewater professionals are well aware that debris has changed significantly over the last 10 years, either through firsthand experience or industry horror stories. From the bus-sized fatberg festering within the London sewer system to the pending wipes lawsuit in Minnesota and public outreach efforts to change consumer behavior, municipalities and facility managers the world over are feeling the overwhelming frustration caused by these seemingly innocent pieces of non-woven fabric. Not only is the waste running through our system tougher and more prevalent than ever before, our aging infrastructure simply can’t keep up. Undersized, original equipment is especially prone to clogging and breakdown, and gradual pipeline and channel deterioration compounds that problem exponentially.

However, hope is not lost. Manufacturers and wastewater professionals alike can equip themselves with the right tools to eliminate the problems caused by nondispersibles in pump stations and resource recovery facilities for good — even if legal and public education efforts do not curtail the problem.

By first examining the history of consumer wipes usage, a better understanding of the scope of what the industry is dealing with will be made clear.

The waste evolution
The prevalence of wipes in the waste stream is a relatively new problem. Introduced in the early 2000s, disposable wet wipes were commercially marketed for household cleaning and “flushable” bathroom use. These products presented convenience, hygiene and performance benefits along with an appealing price point for consumers. While the early versions of these “flushable” wipes didn’t gain immediate, widespread popularity, current consumer wipes offerings have been reintroduced for a wider range of applications — and their popularity has skyrocketed. Disposable wipes sales are rising at double-digit rates and are now a $14 billion product category. Those figures are only expected to increase. According to a 2016 report on the product category, wipes usage is expected to grow at 5.5 percent year-over-year through 2021.

In the early days of consumer wipes production, these “flushable“ products were merely resized versions of baby wipes — cloths made of a stretchy, ultra-durable plastic material known as spunlace, impossible to break apart with water alone. In recent years, most commercial wipes manufacturers switched to a cellulose substrate, which offers slightly better dispersibility without sacrificing strength, but this material still causes clogging and requires intervention in order to fully break down.

Wipes manufacturers contest that the fabrics causing the most damage at pump stations and treatment facilities are actually nonflushable wipes — like paper towels and feminine care products — and disposable wipes products labeled as flushable. However, wastewater operators are seeing things differently. According to a debris evaluation study done by the Maine Wastewater Control Association, 90 percent of the products pulled from the waste stream during the testing period were not flushable – almost half of that total included so-called flushable wipes.

Along with increased durability, this new generation of wipes comes attached with confusing terms. “Flushable” is often assumed to mean “biodegradable” in the eyes of the consumer, so when wipes are flushed down the toilet there is a misleading assumption that the material will behave like toilet paper and eventually dissolve. It’s only when problems from repeated flushing of these kinds of wipes leads to costly and unseemly consequences, usually in the form of a sewer or septic system backup, that some consumers begin to think about how that material behaves within a pipeline. Still, most consumers are unaware of how interconnected our wastewater treatment system is, so the thought of what can or should be flushed rarely leaves the confines of an individual bathroom. The damage caused by wipes and other non-dispersible materials to pumps, pipes and sensitive treatment equipment with wastewater facilities is overwhelming, and some municipalities are starting to take matters in their own hands.

From public outreach campaigns to smarter pump station and treatment facility design, industry professionals around the world are beginning to combat this tough debris more thoroughly and successfully. Increased awareness surrounding what to flush, and updated treatment technology is working in tandem to keep pump stations and resource recovery facilities protected and productive. All of this looks promising and will be explored further in part two of this series.


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