“The battle is being waged on four fronts—legislation, regulation, litigation and publicity,” says INDA president Dave Rousse. “We have seen some wins in all of these areas but we continue to face challenges.”
The wipes industry continues to make strides fighting legislative battles. The Federal Trade Commission has closed two inquiries related to the advertising of flushable wipes without finding or alleging that any product currently on the market has violated any performance claim.
From a regulations standpoint, the wipes industry continues to work with Washington, D.C., in finalizing the language and rulemaking surrounding a bill, passed last year, requiring that wipes pass certain standards before they can be advertised as flushable. At the same time, a similar measure up for debate before the New York City Council seems to have been deprioritized after its sponsors saw an updated Code of Practice on labeling requirements developed by the industry.
In litigation terms, the flushable wipes industry scored a win in August when a judge in Iowa announced the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by the City of Perry, IA, in which Perry alleged damages from flushable wipes manufactured by a number of flushable wipes producers. In dropping its lawsuit, Perry admitted that since the inception of its lawsuit, filed in 2015, it had not experienced any clogs or increased maintenance costs attributable to flushable wipes. Perry also admitted that none of its personnel were able to identify any flushable wipes manufactured by select companies in the city’s plumbing or wastewater systems. Notably, Perry agreed to drop its lawsuit without receiving any compensation for any alleged damages.
In 2016, two of the defendants in the Perry case were able to resolve another flushable wipes class action lawsuit in Florida (Sweeney v. Kimberly-Clark, et al.), where the consumer Plaintiffs also agreed to drop the class action lawsuit without any compensation for alleged damages.
“The settlement terms of the Perry litigation corroborate what years of testing and field collection studies have shown: that flushable wipes are not causing municipal clogs or increased maintenance,” Rousse says. “To date, despite sensational headlines, there is no evidence from any wastewater agency proving that flushable wipes are causing clogs or maintenance issues.”
Recent studies point to similar findings. A recent independently conducted collection study in New York City found that more than 98% of the items examined were not labeled or designed to be flushed, including baby wipes, surface cleaning wipes, paper towels, as well as additional trash items. Other collection studies conducted in Maine and California have yielded similar results.
Amidst these wins, publicity may be the biggest challenge facing flushable wipes as negative articles, falsely blaming the products for clogging sewers, continue to pop up in both local and national media outlets. “We do our Google search every week and the articles keep popping up,” Rousse adds.
Another challenge appeared this summer with the formation of the International Waste Services Flushability Group (IWSFG), an organization comprised of stakeholders in the wastewater services industry, which is dedicated to the inappropriate disposal of consumer products down the toilet. This organization has proposed its own standards, which are based on three main criteria: The wipes must break into small pieces quickly; not be buoyant and not contain plastic or regenerated cellulose but only contain materials which will readily degrade in a range of natural environments.
IWSFG released these draft standards on July 24 for public comments until September 1. The final standard will be finalized in late September.
Rousse calls these standards overkill. “The framework is okay but the pass/fail criteria is way out of line,” he says, adding that the short comments window was particularly unfair to European stakeholders who vacation for much of August.
“We think they want to use these guidelines as a template for legislation including what is currently underway in Washington, D.C.”
The formation of this organization is another battle in the war the wastewater industry has waged against flushable wipes. For a while, it looked as if a truce was underway when wastewater executives agreed to team up with INDA and wipes manufacturers in the development of the fourth edition of their flushability guidelines (GD4), but that relationship deteriorated in January 2017 when the wastewater industry exited the conversations. The wastewater industry wrote to INDA saying they were ending these efforts because no meaningful progress had been made since May 2016.
According to INDA, the wastewater community was insisting on testing requirements that were far more rigorous than necessary.
“If industry were to accept the pass/fail criteria that wastewater industry stood beside, every flushable wipe on the market today would not pass those standards,” says INDA technical affairs director Jim Loftus. “That implies that every flushable wipe is incompatible with the wastewater systems. This is not something that industry can agree with.”
However, the collaboration did yield an updated code of practices that will update labeling requirements for non-flushable wipes. “We have successfully developed, in conjunction with the four major wastewater associations, a new code of practice that takes care of the labeling of 93% of wipes sold—the other 7% are the percentage of wipes sold that are designed to be flushable,” Rousse says. “
"This demonstrates the progress that can be made when both sides take a rational and reasonable approach to change.”
Without the wastewater industry, the finalization of GD4 has stalled but INDA and its allies continue to work on its passage, “We still believe that today’s material science has advanced significantly since 2013 when the last round of guidelines were developed and we would like to change our protocols to reflect that,” Rousse says. “Right now we are figuring out how.”
Once the guidelines are finalized, Rousse hopes the industry can move on to focusing on an awareness program that toilets are not trash cans (TANT),” Rousse adds. “Alas the world is not perfect and we are dealing with an angry wastewater sector that is not willing to acknowledge scientific data,” he says.
He adds the main problem between the nonwovens industry and wastewater agencies was failure to come to an agreement on the definition of the problem. For nonwovens, the problem is the improper flushing of non-flushable materials—like baby wipes, feminine hygiene products and non-flushable paper—whereas the wastewater groups see the improper flushing of incompatible flushable wipes as well as consumer confusion caused by the very existence of flushable products as the problem.
“The wastewater industry is still angry about the guidelines,” he says. “They say they had no input in them when in fact distinguished wastewater leaders reviewed GD1 and GD2 and made suggestions for improvements which led to GD3.”
For now, the industry remains stuck at GD3, which Rousse describes as scientifically sound. “There is no evidence that a GD3 compliant wipe has caused damage, but GD3 no longer represents the minimum performance properties of today’s flushable wipes. We can go beyond GD3, but we have not updated the guidelines to reflect the advancements our industry has made in material science.”
INDA’s flushability task force continues to operate through multiple committees dedicated fighting litigation, legislation and the almost daily media assault that is blaming flushable wipes for sewage problems throughout the U.S. and the world when in fact the role of flushable wipes in sewage clogs is decreasing (down from 7% to 2% since 2010 according to analyses) even though sales volumes of these materials are increasing.
“This does potentially show a trend, the number of flushable wipes has gone up and baby wipes stayed the same yet you see more baby wipes and less flushable wipes (in clogs)…so what is the problem,” Loftus says.
Central to INDA’s efforts will be consumer education, to help reduce the number of non-flushable items—like baby wipes—that are going down the toilet. The updated code of practices includes new labeling requirements that not only feature the do not flush logo more prominently on the outer packaging of the wipe, but also requires the same logo be used at the point of use. Also, no baby wipe—regardless of its ability to disperse—can be marketed and labeled as being flushable to hopefully reduce consumer confusion about what can go in the toilet.
In fact, INDA admits the improper flushing of baby wipes is a growing problem. A recent analysis of clogs in the New York City subway showed that 38% of the material was non-flushable baby wipes, up from an analysis taken seven years ago.
“Too many people are flushing baby wipes and the assault on flushable wipes is not going to fix this problem,” says Richard Palmer, president of Nehemiah Manufacturing and a representative of the flushability communications committee. In fact, limiting the consumer’s supply of flushable materials will only encourage the use—and flushing—of baby wipes.
To help address this, INDA and its partners have developed the Responsible Flushing Alliance to promote consumer awareness about what should and should not be flushed. “Individual companies should use their marketing resources and their public relations resources to share this information because it is something that we as an industry has done a poor job of doing,” he adds.