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We're flushing away our tax dollars

Sending wipes down toilet clogging sewers

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Barry Orr of London, Ont.'s environmental and engineering services displays some items that clog the city's sewer system.

DAVE CHIDLEY / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Barry Orr of London, Ont.'s environmental and engineering services displays some items that clog the city's sewer system.

OTTAWA -- They're billed as a fresh, clean alternative to toilet paper -- but waste-water utilities across Canada say personal wipes are creating putrid sewage clogs that cost Canadian ratepayers at least $250 million a year.

Sewage experts in Canada, the United States and beyond are cringing at efforts to sell the masses on the need to freshen their nether regions, including a recent ad campaign for Cottonelle wipes featuring a cheeky British spokeswoman urging people in public places to "talk about your bum."

Manufacturers, meantime, say the wipes are getting the bum's rush from waste-water officials and are perfectly safe to flush.

Nonetheless, the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG), comprising 25 Canadian communities, wants a federal standard to ensure more honest labelling of the wipes and other products they insist are not safe to send down the toilet.

Among them: Supposedly flushable toilet-cleaning sponges, tampon applicators and even plush, multi-ply toilet paper.

'If we don't deal with this problem, the Canadian taxpayer will be literally flushing away millions'

-- waste-water expert Barry Orr

Although those products and personal wipes may swirl down the toilet with ease, experts say they don't disintegrate, creating serious problems as they work their way through aging sewage systems on their way to treatment plants.

"If we don't deal with this problem, the Canadian taxpayer will be literally flushing away millions," said Barry Orr, a waste-water expert with MESUG.

"It's not a sexy topic -- it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. People expect to flush things down the toilet and then don't want to think about it anymore. But for me, this is everyday life, and we have to get this information out to the public."

Orr said many municipal officials believe MESUG's estimate of the $250 million annual cost is low and that wipes are poised to take a bigger toll. Personal wipes are a $6-billion industry in North America, one that's expected to grow six per cent annually over the next five years.

In the U.S. and Canada, manufacturers voluntarily test products for flushability, but federal laws don't require third-party assessment or verification.

Consequently, Orr and his fellow sewage experts have spent the last two years urging manufacturers, including Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Nice-Pak, and the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, known as INDA, to address the problem.

"We didn't make any progress; they seemed to not be very interested in our position."

Eric Bruner of Kimberly-Clark begs to differ, saying his company -- maker of the popular Cottonelle wipes -- works closely with the industry.

"Kimberly-Clark is committed to working with the waste-water community to ensure that sewage systems work properly and to educate consumers about what is safe to flush and what isn't," he said in an interview from the company's Dallas headquarters.

"But if we label something safe to flush, we stand by that. We put these products through a litany of industry tests... "

Bruner and officials at Nice-Pak, which bills itself "the world's leading producer of wet wipes," say 90 per cent of the clogs public utilities deal with involve products that absolutely should not be flushed down the toilet, and are labelled as such.

INDA says its tests have proven flushable wipes aren't clogging municipal pipes. They blame baby wipes, hard-surface wipes and other non-flushable items.

Nonetheless, Consumer Reports tested several brands of wipes labelled flushable and found while toilet paper broke down after about eight seconds, the wipes showed no sign of disintegrating after 30 minutes in a toilet-flushing simulator.

In England a few months ago, a 15-tonne blob of wipes and cooking grease the size of a bus -- nicknamed "Fatberg" by the Brits -- was discovered in a London sewer pipe after residents complained their toilets wouldn't flush.

"There needs to be a federal, centralized standard or else we'll soon be dealing with our very own, very costly Fatberg," Orr said.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2013 A10

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