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Wet Wipes Clogging Sewers—Call a Special Session!

Hey, legislators? Do you really want to call a special session to deal with water issues? Then how about dealing with the scourge of wet wipes clogging our sewers?

Photo from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2016.
Photo from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2016.

“Flushable” wipes are costing the City of Aberdeen an extra $50,750 this year. The fact that those moist tushy towelettes will swirl down the drain doesn’t mean they break down in the sewer; rather, they’ve been clogging Aberdeen’s lift stations and anaerobic digester. That means more work for city water crews and an accelerated maintenance schedule to clear the digester and prevent methane backups and blowups. The city will spend $50,750 this year that it didn’t plan to spend until next year.

The problem is not unique to Aberdeen. Minnesota towns have reported sewer blockages created by nonwoven wipes, which don’t break down as quickly as dry toilet tissue. Wipes-makers have their own lobbying group which contends that their products break down just fine, but pictures and field research suggest otherwise:

According to the City of Wyoming [MN], INDA’s seven “flushability” tests fail to simulate real-life conditions in a sewer system. One test, the “slosh box” disintegration test, for example, places a wipe in a tank filled with two liters of water that rocks back and forth for 3 hours. The fibers that remain must then be able to pass through a 12.5-millimeter sieve. But a wet wipe often reaches a sewage pump in a couple of minutes, wastewater officials argue. And many sewer systems are not nearly as hard on the wipe as the agitation test. In 2013, Consumer Reports conducted an independent agitation test that none of the leading four wet wipes (Charmin, Scott, Cottonelle, and Equate) could pass. The wipes also failed to break apart after being beaten for 10 minutes in a kitchen stand mixer on the lowest speed [Matt Kessler, “Are Wet Wipes Wrecking the World’s Sewers?The Atlantic, 2016.10.14].

The City of Wyoming filed a lawsuit against six wet-wipe makers in 2015; that suit has since grown into a class action lawsuit of cities versus wipe-makers that is scheduled for trial in April 2018. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has proposed banning the words “flushable”, “septic safe”, and “sewer safe” from wipes packages; a bill to that effect passed the Minnesota Senate in 2016 but didn’t reach the House.

So South Dakota legislators, since you’re all fired up to come to Pierre to talk fishing, let’s throw in some talk about essential water infrastructure. Pick up the Minnesota labeling restriction for wet wipes to make clear to consumers that, no, those comfy cleaners won’t magically dissolve in the sewer and will revisit us with higher sewer bills, if not a neighborhood sewer backup. Amend the sales tax statute to allow municipalities (local control!) to assess up to 20% sales tax on wet wipes, with funds dedicated to municipal waterworks maintenance. (Euromonitor International estimates U.S. sales of wet wipes reached $5.6 billion last year; assuming purchases proportional to population, and South Dakota sales might be $15 million, from which a 20% tax would generate $3 million for sewer work.)

But before we rush to legislate, maybe we should have legislators study the problem. We could send a committee to learn more about wet wipes at World of Wipes® (WOW), INDA’s international conference at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville June 12–15.

One Comment

  1. Rorschach 2017-05-30 10:05

    This is uniquely a GOP Party problem, if you know what I mean.

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