Not-So “Flushable” Wipes Wreak Havoc On Rockland’s Sewer Systems

Since the early 2000s, so-called ‘flushable’ wipes have become a common
hygiene product used in the homes of many Rockland County residents. A
large number of consumers view these products as a sanitary improvement
over traditional toilet paper, leading to the creation of a multi-billion dollar
industry in the U.S. To many consumers, these wipes have appeared to
perform as advertised- but appearances can be deceiving. Many
homeowners learn the hard way that while these wipes may technically be
“flushable by size,’ they can clog up pipes over time, causing nasty sewage
backups in the home. One plumbing disaster is usually a sufficient wake-
up call to revisit the use of these wipes, but those that don’t suffer from
personal experience often remain unaware of the havoc these products can
create in our local wastewater management systems.
That ‘flushable’ wipe may have made it down your toilet, but that doesn’t
mean that it isn’t wreaking havoc in a municipal treatment facility down the
line. In fact, there’s a good chance that your ‘flushable’ wipe will eventually
find its way creating a ball or rope with other problematic materials forming
a large clog known in the industry as a ‘fatberg.” These clogs are often
found to consist of large amounts of wipes and their prevalence is likely
costing you money, either as a payment to your plumber or in increased
maintenance costs on your tax bill. As more and more municipalities are
forced to deal with increased costs and maintenance, the number of
lawsuits against the manufacturers of ‘flushable’ wipes has grown.

Probably the most high-profile lawsuit over the marketing and sale of these
wipes is a current case out of Charleston, S.C., where the Charleston
Wastewater System is suing several manufacturers of wipes marketed and
sold as ‘flushable.’ These manufacturers attempted to have Charleston’s
case dismissed, but a federal judge denied that motion, and citing
precedent, ruled that the “defendants label their products as flushable with
the knowledge- and intent- that consumers rely upon this representation.”
This lawsuit has already resulted in a settlement with Kimberly-Clark, a
pioneering leader in the flushable wipes industry to settle with Charleston.
In this settlement, Kimberly-Clark agreed to improve the biodegradability of
its wipes, revisit its marketing tactics, and to meet industry standards of
flushability by May 2022.
There has also been progress in addressing this problem on the legislative
front. Some states have implemented the requirement that other personal
use wipes, such as cosmetic removers and household cleaning wipes,
must now be sold with “DO NOT FLUSH” markings on the packaging. This
is an important awareness effort, as it is estimated that a large percentage
of wipes that were never intended to be flushed are also finding their way
into wastewater treatment plants.
At the federal level a bipartisan bill was introduced into the House of
Representatives earlier this year calling for nationwide standards for the
flushability of disposable wipes. The Protecting Infrastructure and
Promoting Environmental Stewardship (PIPES) Act would require the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish standards for the
flushability of wipes and ensure that these products, when marketed as
“flushable” or “sewer and septic safe,” do in fact travel through and break

down in wastewater systems without causing harm to plumbing, sewers or
the environment.
Setting a strict, national standard for flushability would certainly go a long
way toward ensuring manufacturers are held accountable for their
marketing and sales claims, but actually resolving the problem that
flushable wipes has become will take a much broader effort. One key
component is to increase local awareness at the consumer level, and a
great starting point for that is to educate Rockland residents on the impacts
on our local sewer district.
Rockland County Sewer District #1 covers Clarkstown, Ramapo and a
portion of Orangetown, and serves 210,000 out of the 340,000 Rockland
residents. It consists of two wastewater treatment treatment plants; one in
Orangetown adjacent to the Town of Orangetown plant and the newer
Western Ramapo plant located in Hillburn. As Supervisor, I am by my
office, a member of the Board of Sewer Commissioners of Rockland
County Sewer District Number One and have served as the Chairman
since 2016. I have seen firsthand the rise in clogs and maintenance issues
over the past several years, and while we don’t have direct statistics that
say flushable wipes are responsible for any given percentage of these
clogs, we do know that disposable wipes are almost always present in the
most problematic clogs in our system. Virtually every instance of a sewer
backup involves fatbergs that include so-called flushable wipes. Just as any
homeowner would need to bring in a plumber at a hefty price to remove a
clog in their home, the Sewer District must pay substantial costs to deal
with this ever increasing problem. Much the same as we want to avoid a
plumbing nightmare in our homes, we should want to avoid an even larger,
collective problem in our municipal wastewater systems. It all starts with

our individual choices as consumers to make responsible decisions. This is
why I am writing this column to alert the public to this issue, that the use of
‘flushable’ wipes can have unintended and disastrous effects to both our
homes and our municipal infrastructure. In addition, the District, supported
by various members of the Legislature as well as the County Executive, is
joining a class action suit brought by the Attorney General to force a
change in marketing as well as possibly recoup money to address the costs
associated with this ever growing problem. Hopefully, this coupled with
other actions being contemplated will bring about the needed change so we
can “flush the troubles with disposable wipes away.”