Commentary by Lara Wyss, the President of the Responsible Flushing Alliance
Cosmetic wipes, cotton balls, feminine products, kitty litter and even hot dogs – these are some of the items that have been found in California wastewater systems, many of which are sent down the drain via a simple flush of the toilet. America has a major flushing problem that’s costing taxpayers millions and putting the health of our environment, waterways, and communities at risk.
A new alliance of strange bedfellows has come together to help solve the problem, starting with addressing how we think about what we toss in the toilet.
Today’s avoidable and increasingly dangerous municipal sewer issues have connected environmentalists, product manufacturers, lawmakers, and everyday consumers to focus their energy on solving the growing “fatberg” problem. These cement-like masses form in pipes when cooking grease and other sticky substances combine with products that don’t readily disperse in water, causing costly damage to our sewage pipes. Fatbergs are gross, expensive to remove and preventable.
Environmentalists and wipes industry leaders may seem unlikely friends, but not when it comes to eliminating the damage fatbergs pose to our cities and our environment. In fact, they joined forces with policymakers to pass legislation that aims to educate consumers on what not to send down the toilet and place a “Do Not Flush” symbol on non-flushable wipes meant for household cleaning and personal care. That law, known as the Wet Wipes Labeling Law (California Assembly Bill 818), went into effect July 1.
It’s hard to believe the growing fatberg problem is caused by such small consumer decisions to flush the wrong things down the toilet. Yet here we are. The problem has become so pervasive that the California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) and the National Stewardship Action Council (NSAC) partnered with wipes industry trade association INDA to work with Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) on legislation to address the issue.
Unfortunately, the problem of improper disposal of non-flushable wipes is not unique to California. The increased demand for wipes nationwide is causing an increase in fatberg-caused clogs, leaks, spills, and infrastructural damage, costing more than $400 million in repairs.
It’s time for the country to take action. Environmentalists and policymakers have introduced a federal, bipartisan piece of legislation known as the Wastewater Infrastructure Pollution Prevention and Environmental Safety (WIPPES) Act, authored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), to mandate clear labeling of non-flushable wipes.
If environmentalists, wastewater agencies, and industry groups can agree that it’s time to change our flushing habits to better protect families and our environment, so can we. We all want healthier communities for our families, especially at a time when health and hygiene is at the forefront of our minds. While legislation alone won’t change our flushing habits overnight, it’s a step in the right direction.
According to a recent industry report by Freedonia Group, “demand for wipes is expected to advance 2.3% per year off a relatively high base to $4.3 billion in 2026.” In other words, wipes aren’t going away anytime soon, and neither will America’s flushing problem if we don’t take action.
That’s precisely why a consumer education effort is paramount to the collaboration between industry and policymakers. A 2021 survey produced by the Responsible Flushing Alliance (RFA) found that only 37% of consumers feel “very knowledgeable” on what not to flush. Meanwhile, 60% of survey respondents admitted to flushing non-flushable in the prior year. These attitudes and behaviors must change in American homes.
RFA has taken on the mission of educating consumers to reverse these disastrous trends. The #FlushSmart campaign launched on the heels of the enactment of the Wet Wipes Labeling Law, working to educate consumers within the state and beyond on acknowledging the “Do Not Flush” symbol before making disposal decisions.
This is only the start. In a time, rife with seemingly unfixable problems and an ever-shrinking common ground, this partnership between environmentalists, legislators, and wipes manufacturers shows what collaboration can accomplish. We must stay committed to implementing meaningful legislation, like the California Wet Wipes Labeling Law and the WIPPES Act, by continuing to educate our families and neighbors on proper flushing habits to keep non-flushable products out of our sewer system, protect our environment, and lay the groundwork for a healthier future for everyone.
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