Wet Wipes: To Flush Or Not To Flush?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A multibillion-dollar industry has emerged over the last decade, and many of its products end up in our toilets. We're talking about the wet wipes industry. Companies that once made wipes just for babies now make them for everyone. Some are considered flushable, but as soon as those wipes go down the drain, controversy bubbles up. Here's Lauren Silverman of station KERA.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Today, there's a wipe for everything - to clean grease, remove makeup, put on deodorant, insect repellent or sunscreen. Even billionaire investor Mark Cuban got in on the wipes business after a pitch from the founders of DUDE Wipes on the TV show "Shark Tank."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHARK TANK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sharks, are you still wiping the old-fashioned way with just toilet paper?
SILVERMAN: Convenience is a big reason we've gone crazy for wet wipes, according to Jennifer Christ. She's with the U.S. market research firm Freedonia Group.
JENNIFER CHRIST: The wet wipes industry has grown from being just simple baby wipes and wet wipes for cleaning your hands after eating ribs to a $2.1 billion industry.
SILVERMAN: The products of that industry are often flushed down the toilet. The side effect, according to wastewater managers across the globe, is costly and disgusting. To see for myself, I visited a wastewater treatment plant in north Texas. More than 100 million gallons of raw sewage pass through here each day.
Now, you don't even seem to be flinching with the smell.
BILL CYRUS: No, ma'am (laughter). There's good days and bad days (laughter).
SILVERMAN: Technical services manager Bill Cyrus says this is where all the solids that didn't break down in the pipes are removed with screens. These days, the screens are stuffed with wet wipes. Cyrus calls the mucky, gray material rags.
You've been here for many decades. Is what it's pulling up today the same as what it's been pulling up for decades?
CYRUS: Oh, no (laughter). The rag issue is going up, up, up, up, up. That industry has gone up exponentially in the last five to six years.
SILVERMAN: The buildups can damage machinery and back up the entire system, all the way to your bathroom. Cyrus says in 2015, maintenance and hauling the waste to the landfill cost Dallas taxpayers $165,000. That's nothing compared to the millions spent in 2013 removing a fatberg from London's sewers. Fatbergs - massive globs of congealed cooking fat held together with the help of wet wipes - have formed in cities like Baltimore too. The Association of Nonwoven Fabric Industries, which represents the makers of wet wipes, says wipes labeled flushable go through testing and are not the culprits. So what's the deal?
CHRIST: Well, the industry's had a really hard time defining what it means to be flushable.
SILVERMAN: Market researcher Jennifer Christ says now the question of flushability will go to federal court. Wet wipe giant Kimberly-Clark has sued Washington, D.C., after the district created its own flushability standards that would require different labeling. Trina McCormick directs research and engineering for Kimberly-Clark's family care business.
TRINA MCCORMICK: Honestly, non-flushable wipes are causing a lot of the problems, not flushable wipes, and trash.
SILVERMAN: McCormick says Kimberly-Clark has spent millions of dollars over two decades to create flushable wipes out of wood pulp, not plastics, that weaken and disperse after they've been flushed. Bill Cyrus with the Dallas area wastewater treatment plant says some wipes do degrade, but overall, the industry-set standards aren't good enough. Now, he's on a stinky mission to identify which wipes are clogging the system.
CYRUS: So we photograph them, we dry them out, we - after we've weighed them.
SILVERMAN: So you're - but you're basically doing forensics on wet wipes.
CYRUS: (Laughter) That's correct.
SILVERMAN: Cyrus is not anti-wet wipes, but if you choose to use them, he says, at least for now, please put them in the trash. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.