Wiping Up 2020: Steps Forward for Consumer Education on Wipes

Dec 18, 2020

As each year comes to a close, we are often inclined to take stock of what has happened in the past year and look forward as the calendar starts anew. 2020 has certainly been a crazy year, but beyond the pandemic and the election and strides for social justice, there are other issues that were also very important this year but did not always receive widespread attention – like the bane of wastewater utilities worldwide: wipes. 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. this spring, toilet paper was suddenly in short supply and widespread disinfection efforts became a national obsession. People who hadn’t stocked up on TP apparently decided to experiment with using other products for wiping, and utilities across the country experienced an influx of wipes and other materials used for disinfection and personal hygiene.

Unfortunately, these materials do not break apart easily after flushing, as toilet paper does, leading to clogged wastewater pipes and equipment, in the process afflicting public clean water utilities, big and small, urban and rural, all across the country

Despite years of utilities informing citizens to “Only flush the 3 Ps: pee, poop, and toilet paper,” it seems that many people have still not gotten this message. Clearly, more needs to be done, and the wipes industry must take a larger role with educating consumers on the proper disposal of their products. The industry has developed an effective “Do Not Flush” logo for wipes packaging, but all too often, the logo is not obvious – either too small, in a bad location, or camouflaged with other package artwork. Some wipes brands have decided to forego the logo altogether.

In March, Washington State became the first state to pass a law mandating “Do Not Flush” labeling on packages of wipes that are not designed to be flushed. The law includes language to specify the size, placement, and color contrast of the logo so that it will be obvious to consumers.

Other states will try to pass similar legislation in 2021, including California. Eventually, there may also be legislation mandating a flushability standard for wipes labeled “flushable.” The International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG) revised its flushability specifications in 2020, providing a viable method for ensuring that flushable wipes will break apart quickly and be safe to flush.  

Additional state requirements for labeling will be helpful, and California’s proposed wipes bill includes a requirement for wipe companies to engage in a more comprehensive public education campaign. There may also be opportunities to collaborate with wipes companies on a larger campaign on the wipes issues we agree on, such as not flushing any baby wipes or disinfecting wipes. 

“Do Not Flush” labeling is the first step in educating consumers about the proper way to dispose of wipes, but more is needed to make sure everyone is receiving the “Toilets Are Not Trashcans” message.  To this end, NACWA has introduced a valuable tool in consumer education with our brand new Flush3Ps website.

Visitors to the website can learn about the real effects that flushing wipes has on our nation’s sewer systems. After browsing our Resources page, they can take the 3 P Pledge. Once they have pledged to only flush the 3Ps, they will receive shareable social media graphics they can use to help spread the message.

Legislation on wipes is important, but so too is thoughtful consumer education. By fighting this battle on both fronts, NACWA is working hard to ensure a future where only the 3 Ps make it down the drain, and fatbergs – those colossal, congealed masses of wipes, FOG and more – are a thing of the past.

Cynthia Finley
Director, Regulatory Affairs
Washington, DC


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