Canadian wastewater operators are leading the charge to create an international standard defining what is truly “flushable.”
Working in the wastewater facilities and sewers of London, Ont., Barry Orr has pulled apart many a blockage—huge wads of materials that should simply not be there. The latest culprit: baby wipes. “It used to be dental floss, cotton swabs, feminine hygiene products, maybe a toy. Now it’s [all that plus] wipes, wipes, wipes.”
The problem is twofold: people disposing of regular wipes down their toilets, and wipes marketed as “flushable” that do not actually break down in the sewage system.
Moreover, wipes compound problems already caused by non-desirables such as fats, oils and greases (FOGs) and dental floss, which grab onto the wipes and snowball into huge blockages, also known as “fatbergs.”
To address the issue, Orr and other members of the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG) have been leading efforts to create an ISO standard that would define what can be labelled as “flushable.”
The ISO process
MESUG is a group of Ontario environmental officers, wastewater operators, technicians, managers, and administrators. A few years ago, they submitted a proposal to ISO’s technical committee on municipal water and wastewater services (TC 224) to develop a Technical Specification on Flushable Products. The proposal was supported by over 14 member countries, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and Japan. In 2014, an international working group was created.
Duncan Ellison, former executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA), is the working group’s convenor. He explains that each country has its own advisory (or mirror) committee to the international group. While the absence of wipes manufacturers in Canada means that Canada’s mirror committee includes mostly wastewater representatives, the mirror committees in the U.S. and Europe are composed equally of manufacturers and wastewater engineers.
Consensus, therefore, will not be easy. “The dominant manufacturers are looking for performance standards that will allow their [existing] products to be certified,” said Ellison. “On the wastewater side, we’re looking for performance standards that will ensure rapid deterioration or disintegration of the material that is flushed.” Yet he is hopeful, noting there are manufacturing industries in Europe and China producing raw material for wipes that would disintegrate just like toilet paper.
The international working group was scheduled to meet at the end of June 2016 to discuss the latest draft. Ellison has stepped up the pressure by warning members that if they cannot agree on certain policy issues, he will elevate these points to the technical committee itself. Some contentious issues include whether a specific disintegration test will be mandated or whether an alternative type of test would be allowed, and whether certain types of coatings, chemicals, and materials would be prohibited. Ellison hopes to see the standard published in 2017.
Voluntary vs. regulatory
Although an ISO standard is not binding, it can bring about action in two ways. First, manufacturers may find it to their commercial advantage to adhere to the standard voluntarily, in the same way as hundreds of thousands of companies worldwide are now certified to ISO 9000. Second, it can serve as a basis for national standards. In this regard, an ISO standard would give municipalities and the wastewater community something to bring to legislators and policy-makers.
“When you try and develop localized laws, you want to start from the point of an international standard so as to support trade,” explained Robert Haller, current executive director of CWWA.
Parallel to the ISO process, Haller and others are working with the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) to develop voluntary industry standards. While INDA does have a guidance document on this issue, known as GD3, the wastewater industry never approved it. “We don’t believe GD3 is good enough: products do not disperse quickly enough and are still clogging up systems,” said Haller.
Wastewater representatives are therefore working with INDA to develop a new guidance document, GD4. A technical committee is trying to develop a wipe that will break down quickly, while the Product Stewardship Initiative is looking at how items are labelled.
“There’s a lot of confusion in the market,” noted Haller. So-called flushables often sit side-by-side non-flushables on store shelves. The correct method of disposal tends to be in fine print. “We want any item that might end up going down your toilet to be labelled non-flushable. Instructions to the consumers need to be clear.”
Although Haller is not sure how effective a voluntary program would be, he’d like to eventually see it enforced by regulatory measures. “This would support the industry by protecting companies who are putting in time and money to research and develop a good product.”
Based on its surveys with wastewater operators, MESUG estimates this issue is costing Canadian municipalities over $250 million a year in extra maintenance costs. “That’s not even taking into account operational costs or capital costs,” adds Barry Orr. In the U.S., a number of cities have initiated lawsuits against manufacturers for damages caused by wipes marketed as “flushable.”
Although baby wipes are the main target, an ISO standard defining what is flushable would apply to any item that consumers might drop into their toilets. At the moment, all kinds of items are marked flushable, from tampons to scrubbing brushes.
Of course, the problem could be solved tomorrow if people simply put these items in a garbage bin instead. In his 20 years in the business, Orr has never seen so much garbage in our wastewater. “Go into a screening room at a wastewater treatment plant, and it’s absolutely horrendous, the amount of garbage coming down the pipes,” he said.