Atlantic Cities

People Who Flush Personal Wipes Down the Drain Are Destroying America's Sewers

People Who Flush Personal Wipes Down the Drain Are Destroying America's Sewers
www.dollarshaveclub.com

If you watch TV you've probably seen an ad for "Charmin Freshmates Flushable Wipes." They are like baby wipes, except for adults. According to the makers, you can flush them. That last part--the flushability--is the real selling point. Except according to municipal waste managers in Washington, D.C., and New York, personal wipes targeted at adults are proving to be a flushable nightmare. 

The Washington Post reported in September that personal wipes and a range of other "flushable" products are stressing aging sewer systems:

The [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission] has spent more than $1 million to install heavy-duty grinders to shred wipes and other debris before they reach pumps on the way to the treatment plant, Hudson said. Officials with DC Water, the District’s water and sewer agency, say that more than 500 man-hours have been devoted over the past 12 months to removing stuck wipes and repairing broken equipment. Anne Arundel County officials blame wipes on a 35 percent jump in broken pumps and clogged sewer lines over several years. 

Utility officials say that one of the manufacturers’ key tests for wipes marketed as “flushable” does not simulate conditions in real-life sewer systems. The “slosh box” test requires that at least one-quarter of a wipe agitated in water be broken into pieces small enough to pass through a small sieve within three hours. However, utility officials say wipes can reach a pump within a couple of minutes. Moreover, many sewer systems, including the WSSC’s, move sewage primarily via gravity and are not nearly as hard on the wipes as the agitation test, utility officials say.

While flushable adult wipes weren't born yesterday, the matter of their disposal is becoming increasingly critical, as "consumer wipes sales are predicted to grow by about 6 percent annually for the next five years."

Lest you think D.C. is exaggerating its plight, New York Magazine reported earlier this month that adult wipes are also a problem in their neck of the woods. Christopher Bonanos points to a relatively new marketing strategy by the makers of wet wipes: 

The solution was for manufacturers to offer wipes that were packaged for adults, marketed as an adjunct to rather than a replacement for con­ventional toilet paper. This approach has been much more successful, creating a new, eager, aloe-slicked market. 

The razors-by-mail company Dollar Shave Club just introduced a line called One Wipe Charlies, aimed at younger men. (From the bro-toned promotional video: “Reach around for a deeper clean.”) DSC’s co-founder Michael Dubin says that his market research revealed that “51 percent of guys are using wipes regularly alongside TP, and 16 percent of guys were using wipes exclusively. That blew our minds. Less surprising, but equally compelling, was that 24 percent of guys hide their wipes from view, the No. 1 reason being they’re embarrassed.” Cottonelle is in the same game, with its Fresh Care line of “flushable cleansing cloths.”

The New York City ­Department of Environmental Protection told New York's Bonanos that clogs caused by "flushable" wipes are costing the city "$18 million per year for extra disposal," a figure "that doesn’t include staff overtime and damaged equipment."

Bonus: Here's how Dollar Shave Club is selling "One Wipe Charlies" to men: 

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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