For years, wastewater utilities have begged restaurants and residents not to flush fats, oils, and grease (FOG) down sewers and toilets. Wipe Out session panelists at last month’s Water Environment Federation (WEF) annual convention say it’s time to add another item to the list: wet wipes.

Here’s the problem: Most people assume it’s OK to flush household and personal care products, conveniently delivered via the single-use sheet, down the toilet. In fact, some actually think that’s better than throwing them away because they’d take up valuable landfill space.

People don’t realize that “flushable” is not the same thing as “flowable.” Today’s toilets can handle just about anything, but the 50-, 75- , and 100-year-old sewer collection systems they discharge to cannot.

“Sewer activists” say that’s easily fixed: Toughen the standards for what can be labeled “flushable,” and put a prominent “don’t flush” logo on non-compliant products.

Wait a minute, say consumer goods manufacturers. It's not as easy as you'd think.

Changing package design takes an average of 18 months. Graphics must be tweaked and manufacturing processes retooled. Color costs more than black and white. Labeling requirements are voluntary, so manufacturers and retailers aren't required to spend the additional money these changes involve.

A decade ago, the Water Environment Research Foundation and INDA, the trade group for the nonwovens/engineered fabrics industry, used Procter & Gamble's process for assessing biodegradability to develop criteria for determining what can be labeled flushable. Wastewater utility managers want the guidelines expanded to encompass more products.

INDA says members are making a good-faith effort to be environmentally friendly and besides, wet wipes aren’t the main problem—paper towels are. Those manufacturers should be asked to do their part.

You can get involved, too. WEF, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and the American Public Works Association are collecting examples of how treating toilets like trash cans is impacting sewer utilities and customers. Visit here to submit a non-dispersibles incident report to the database.