Editor’s note: Every time my seventh-grade gym teacher referred to a tampon, she’d hold it up, stare us down, and say: “Never, ever, flush this — or the applicator — down the toilet.” Whether she was required to say it or married to a plumber, I don’t know. Didn’t matter. We got the message.

We need to re-educate people about what can and can’t be flushed. Toilets are more robust than when I was in junior high (and no, I’m not telling you the year). Back then property owners clogged their own plumbing; today our sanitary sewer systems are taking the hit.

This article talks a lot about wet wipes, but they’re not the only culprit. Like toilet paper, which disintegrates in about 1 minute, some wipes disperse rapidly. But many other items do not. According to Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) field tests with wastewater utilities, nondispersibles break down as:

  • 50% paper towels from public restrooms; they get to the treatment plant relatively intact and build up on bar screens
  • 25% baby wipes
  • 25% feminine hygiene, household cleaning, and cosmetic wipes; tampon strings wrap around other stuff to create a solid mass of material.

The public “demands” convenience, but only because nonwoven fabrics enable The Procter & Gamble Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., and other companies to dispense household cleaners, fabric softeners, hemorrhoid cream, and hundreds of other consumer packaged goods via a single sheet, or wipe. In 2002, the market for wet wipes was worth $2 billion. This year, according to The New England Consulting Group of Norwalk, Conn., it’s $5 billion. Five years from now: $6.5 to $7 billion.

Companies market them as “flushable,” “biodegradable,” and “safe for sewers and septic systems,” but I wouldn’t be writing this if they’re also dispersible; i.e., dissolvable in water. Here’s how the wastewater industry is responding.

Additionally, learn how four utilities are keeping ‘flushables’ from clogging pumps.

— Stephanie Johnston

Next page: one utility’s $320,000 liability