Survey reveals consumers still flushing wipes

Despite expensive damage that can be done by flushing wipes, a recent survey identified an ongoing need for awareness about items that should not be flushed. Many consumers still believe baby wipes, personal care wipes, and disinfecting wipes are “flushable.”

That’s according to information released last week by the Washington Association of Water & Sewer Districts.

In 2020, the Washington State legislature adopted a law to enhance package labeling about wipes not being suitable to flush. This survey was the second in a series to compare consumer awareness trends from both before and after implementation of this law, to gauge whether labeling was shifting consumer behavior.

While survey results indicated a small decrease in items that survey respondents considered “flushable,” it underscored an ongoing need to educate consumers about smart flushing habits—not only to protect their sewer lines, but to help keep utility rates affordable.

When flushed wipes combine with grease and other cooking fats found in sewer lines, they form what utilities call “fatbergs” — massive blocks comprised of non-dissolved, grease-hardened wipes that send sewage backing up into homes and businesses. In 2019, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) estimated that flushed wipes were costing North American wastewater utilities an additional $441 million in operating costs — every year — to repair sewer lines clogged with “fatbergs.”

While consumers may not hear about a clog that happens in a public sewer line, ongoing increases in a utility’s operational expenses do eventually trickle down into increased utility rates. Add in the cost homeowners must bear when clogs occur closer to home (in the “sidesewer” lines that homeowners are responsible for maintaining), and the true impact of“flushable” wipes becomes more apparent.

Co-sponsors of the survey included the Washington Association of Sewer & Water Districts (WASWD), the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), the City of Seattle, the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), and the Responsible Flushing Alliance (RFA).

WASWD, one of the primary agencies that proposed the 2020 wipes labeling law, offers the following advice for consumers: Stick with the “three P’s” — pee, poop and (toilet) paper — when you flush… and put all wipes in the trash.

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