Careful! Those ‘flushable’ wipes aren’t

Higgins: Sewer problems caused by misleading claim
Fri, 08/02/2019 - 1:00pm

After finding 22 gallons of wipes clogging a sewer main on July 11, Boothbay Harbor Sewer District Superintendent Chris Higgins is continuing to spread the word that they are not “flushable” – despite the advertising and package labeling.

“They don’t tear because they are made of a woven product with a polyester base and when they get into a pump they act like a rubber band in scissors,” he explained to the Boothbay Register. “Toilet paper falls apart in seven seconds, paper towels fall apart in 30 minutes, but wipes stay together forever.”

The recent blockage on Tupper Road in Boothbay Harbor was caused by cleaning wipes and baby wipes and took a two-man crew 30 minutes to clean out, costing what Higgins estimated to be $1,000 in labor and equipment.

Sewer line blockages usually don’t happen, according to Higgins. “This one was in the main and we don’t get that many because we regularly clean the lines. Twenty-two gallons is a lot. We’ve never had an issue on that stretch of pipes.”

Within days of the blockage, letters were sent to residents on that sewer line educating them about the problems with flushing the wipes. In addition, a crew from the sewer district will now pop the manhole cover once a week to make sure wipes aren’t continuing to be a problem.

Educating the public not to flush wipes is a challenge shared by sewer systems around the country and the world. According to Smithers Pira, a worldwide authority on the paper industry, sales for wet wipes accounted for $2.1 billion in 2018 in a quickly growing market.

It’s hard for the local sewer system to be heard above the din of advertising from giants like Proctor & Gamble, SC Johnson, Cottonelle and Kimberly-Clark. 

A 2017 Washington Post story reported the disposal of wipes is growing and costs municipal sewer systems $1 billion every year, based on information from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

And the costs are felt by property owners, too.

According to PR Newswire, a recent class action lawsuit has resulted in settlements paid by Proctor & Gamble to Charmin Freshmates customers who had costly plumbing problems that resulted from flushing the wipes.  

Action.com reports that Walmart, Target and Costco have been sued by a homeowners association in New York for the damages caused by their “flushable” wipes. And according to Mondaq.com, a class action case against Kimberly-Clark is making its way through the courts, suing the giant under California’s false advertising laws.

“The wipes have been a problem since about 10 years ago when they hit the market,” Higgins commented.  

Whether used to remove makeup, to clean a countertop, or on a baby’s bottom, when it comes to wipes, the sewer district advises: “Don’t flush. Dispose of them in a waste receptacle.”