‘Flushable’ wipes cause havoc in NYC’s plumbing and sewer systems

Sanitary wipes don't break down like toilet paper and are clogging screens at New York City wastewater facilities, official say.
Sanitary wipes don’t break down like toilet paper and are clogging screens at New York City wastewater facilities, official say. Photo Credit: ASPCA

New York City’s sewer pipes are flush with problems thanks to flushable wipes.

The amount of debris — almost all of which is allegedly flushable wipes — removed from the screens in the city’s waste water treatment plants has more than doubled since 2008, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

“Sanitary wipes do not break down like toilet paper and they clog the screens at the wastewater treatment facilities,” explained a DEP spokesman. How much does this cost our city? More than $18 million just in the last five years. Additional, unspecified costs are also incurred as a result of wipes jamming up pumps and gears that require repair, the spokesman added.

Quick-clean wipes are treasured by parents for quick cleanups during diapering but have also gained traction with campers and clean-freaks who prefer their performance to that of toilet tissue. People who suffer from hemorrhoids and other colorectal disorders use medicated wipes. But the industry and municipalities (not to mention plumbers) differ in the definition of “flushable”: You can flush your T-shirt down the toilet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t plug up your pipes, septic tank or the sewer system.

Wipes “end up in the sewer trap in the basement,” of private homes, explained Marvin Gross, president of Village Plumbing and Heating in Queens Village. “They build up in a block: Just like clogging an artery,” he added.

Old pipes in NYC are especially prone to problems because bits of protruding corrosion snag wipes on their sewer journey, explained Tim Williams, a plumber and vice president of the firm. Too, in older neighborhoods with big trees, roots grow directly into pipes through tiny joint spaces, providing a net for the wipes.

“The only thing that should ever get flushed is human waste and toilet paper,” said Williams, noting that even dental floss and facial tissue can cause backups and obstructions.

A bill was introduced in the City Council in February by Antonio Reynoso and nine other council members to prohibit “flushable” wipes from being sold or advertised as such in NYC unless they satisfied DEP flushability standards.

“We want what they call a toilet paper standard: that it breaks apart automatically,” explained Lacey Tauber, legislative and policy director for Reynoso. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing and the flushable wipe manufacturers have lobbied council members aggressively against it, said Tauber.”This bill is good fiscal policy,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who said she had not been lobbied at all — nor had she heard from constituents — concerning the proposed legislation. A spokesman for Councilman Carlos Menchaca, another co-sponsor, said that while he is “supportive of the bill and the sustainability it promotes, we don’t have an on-the-record statement to make at this time.”

Several other council members declined to respond to questions about whether they had been lobbied not to pass it. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission issued a final consent order with Nice-Pak Products, Inc. — which makes wipes for Costco, CVS, Target and BJ’s Wholesale Club — to stop advertising its products as flushable or safe for septic or sewer systems unless the company can prove the claims are true.

“Regulating one product, the flush-friendly category, won’t reduce the debris burden, as it won’t touch the 90+% of the products in that burden,” David Rousse, president of INDA, the industry association of the nonwoven fabrics industry, said in a statement. Rousse said that “collection studies” performed by his industry have discerned that 47% of the debris caught on screens were paper towels, another 18% were Baby Wipes (“not designed to be flushed”) and another 30% were feminine hygiene products and other kinds of wipes (facial tissue, cleaning cloths, etc.) also “not designed to be flushed.” The NYC legislation, he complained, penalizes “the good guys,” who have subjected their products to assessments and tests designed by industry experts to ensure they do “no harm.”

Try telling that to D. Joseph Kurtz, a Flatbush dentist. He is suing two wipes manufacturers for selling wipes advertised as flushable that he alleges prompted costly plumbing repairs in his Brooklyn and Elberon, New Jersey, homes. Kurtz’s attorney, Mark Reich, of Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd, is awaiting a decision on whether the suit he filed last year will be certified as a class action case to cover other plaintiffs who, he said, “paid a premium” for items that were labeled “flushable” yet wrought havoc with their plumbing. Lawsuits against flushable wipes — some filed by municipalities, others by private citizens — are popping up across the country.

“We’re looking for a refund of the product as well as injunctive relief,” said Reich.

Products that not only fail to deliver on their package promises but cause enormous problems for purchasers and the public “shouldn’t be on the market at all,” Reich said.