Flushable wipes: a tale of two standards.
Flushable Wipes: Almost everyone agrees that a flushable wipe is of interest to the consumer. Judging from the store shelves, almost every wipes producer knows how to make a "flushable" wipe today.....and is willing to say so on the label. The problem is that today there are really no standards by which flushability is measured.
There are certainly plenty of interested parties working on one, or at least providing their input. INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, has a task force on flushability, which has accumulated a group of high powered, highly intelligent industry experts, has reviewed a great deal of literature and data, and coordinated its efforts with its European counterpart EDANA. For more than two years, the task force has struggled with the task of defining an industry-wide standard (or at least "guideline") for flushability. Now, the task force expects guidelines to be issued later this year.
If everyone agrees that flushable wipes are a desirable market niche, and if there are dozens of products by major companies already on the market with the word "flushable" prominently displayed on the package, why aren't there clear standards describing these products?
Size Does Matter
There have been "flushable" wipes since the 1980s, when then Scott Paper marketed a latex bonded airlaid web reinforced with polyester fiber as "flushable" because the size of this wipe was small enough to transit the toilet and waste water system. With this "size standard" in place, Scott and many other companies since have proceeded to make and market dozens of "flushable" wipes to the present day. Some modern examples: Procter & Gamble's Always, Pampers TidyTykes and Kandoo wipes, Kimberly-Clark's Cottonelle and Pull Ups Just for Kids, Wet Ones Flushables from Playtex and Georgia-Pacific's Moist-Ones. There are several private label offerings as well. All of these wipes are flushable and labeled as such mainly because they are sized to fit through typical toilet plumbing.
Actually, all of these products are basically standard wipes in a smaller size! They do not disperse in water in any time frame (other than perhaps geological), have varying biodegradability and essentially maintain their structure throughout their entire lifetime in the waste water system.
These are the wipes that you would recognize instantly on the screens of the municipal waste treatment plant. These are the wipes that in Grand Rapids, MI were blamed by operators for clogging a section of the sewer system; these are the wipes that caused Raleigh, NC to pass an ordinance specifying a $25,000 fine per offense for flushing anything other than human waste or toilet tissue; these are the wipes many television consumer reports have attacked with headlines like "Flush or Fiction", claiming expensive plumbing repairs can result.
As these wipes become more popular, public attention increases. Healthcare journals ("....nurses won't flush wipes one at a time...."), consumer advocacy reports ("....plumbers found pumps clogged with wipes.... leading to $600 repairs ... ") and a myriad of internet blogs ("When they say "flushable" they mean just that for the "city folk." Municipal sewer systems can pick that stuff out. Your septic can't tolerate it.").
Despite this, they sell! Consumers rave about the convenience. Consumers love to "flush" germs rather than store them in in-home waste receptacles. Even the size is welcomed for its toddler friendliness and waste minimization. Amazingly, these flushable wipes seem just as strong as their larger non-flushable counterparts (amazing to the consumer; obvious to the nonwovens insider who knows the difference is a few inches trimmed off of each side).
Even better, they are easy and inexpensive to maker Using decades-old technology and a substrate which requires only a slitting and cutting change to switch from high test wiping to flushable toddler cleaning, this type of flushable product requires no risk, no new product development, no research and development and no extensive product testing. Anyone can make this type of flushable wipe.
What About the New Flushable Spunlace Wipes?
The "new" flushable spunlace wipes are demonstrated by commercial products like Clorox Flushable Wipes and SC Johnson's Scrubbing Bubbles. These wipes have very low wet strength, usually about half the wet strength of a standard wipe. They collapse or "rope" in a toilet, presenting a very small profile to the plumbing fixtures, thus fitting through them. This small profile and flexibility allows these wipes to travel through unencumbered piping to the wastewater plant. But, encumbered (i.e. tree roots) piping may clog with these products. Large usage of these wipes may foul the entrance screens to a wastewater plant.
Some of the consumer issues cited above would probably apply to these wipes as well. Also, their low wet strength makes them poor performers in most cleaning jobs, disenchanting the consumer.
Still, both the size-based flushable wipes and these "new" spunlace versions sell. This shows a consumer desire for flushable wipes, a desire for which even partial satisfaction will generate some interest.
Pricie Hanna, vice president of industry consultancy John R. Starr, Inc., echoed the sentiments of many industry insiders "Flushable wipes are a clear market need. Consumers have always wished for the convenience of flushable wipes."
And the Answer is.....
The answer is well thought-out standards defining an effective flushable product that does not harm septic systems, does not clog piping and pumps, does not foul in tree roots, catch on old iron pipes, load up screens in municipal wastewater plants and does not increase landfill loads.
Many think the standard should mandate products that are dispersible wipes. These products theoretically perform like a standard wipe as far as strength and softness but in a toilet disperse into individual fibers or small groups of fibers, behaving like toilet tissue in the waste stream.
Toilet tissue is dispersible, but has no wet strength in use. The most visible dispersible wipe product on the market today is Kimberly-Clark's Cottonelle Rollwipe. Using reversible ionic bonds to give good strength in use, but little or no strength in the toilet, this product has suffered in its target market, premoistened toilet tissue. This failure has been mainly due to a poorly defined or unexpectedly small market, not because of wipe performance. There are other technologies as well. Ken Fiorvanti, global marketing manager--engineered fabrics for Air Products Polymers explained, "Over the years, we have developed a sub-set of binders that have been specifically engineered to provide temporary wet strength in lotionized wipes and are biodegradable. Manufacturers can choose from a variety of chemical 'triggers' that are incorporated into the wet wipe such that substrate integrity is maintained during converting through consumer use. However, when disposed of in the toilet, water dilution 'triggers' the binder to lose its strength and allow the substrate (fibers) to completely disperse." There are options.
There are still many issues for dispersible wipes, though. The bonding technologies are new and to some manufacturers not yet optimal. The technologies can be expensive, hard to practice or may impact substrate properties via odor, stiffness of EHS limitations. The technology options are rather narrow, with extensive patent protection and relatively few researchers.
Others ask why worry about regulations or restrictions until they exist? Why react to pressures that may never come? Why pay today for tomorrow's potential problems? Products exist today that meet informal flushability standards......formalize these standards.
A Tale of Two Standards?
As successful as wipes are, most industry experts and consumer advocacy groups expect government or regulatory agency-imposed standards, if industry self-policing doesn't occur. So far, these government and regulatory agencies haven't gotten around to it. When questioned (as they have been more and more frequently by media and consumer groups), agencies like the the Municipal Waste Management Association, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local municipalities--say essentially that they haven't thought about it, yet.
There are no hard and fast standards today for flushability. Even the "size standard" used to produce flushable wipes today is not formalized. Cos Camelio, technical director of INDA, commented "As far as I'm aware, there are no federal or state standards that companies must attain in order to claim flushability. That's one of the reasons for INDA and EDANA attempting to put together test methods and a guideline for the industry to follow. The INDA/EDANA standards and guidelines should be ready by the end the first quarter or early April at the latest."
It was January 2004 when INDA first formed a Flushability Task Force. The task force had two objectives:
1. Develop technical guidelines for assessing the flushability of solid products. This would include arriving at an agreed-to definition of flushability in a broad sense and development of test methods that support the overall approach. It also includes building consensus with key external shareholders.
2. Develop a communication strategy. The goal of this objective is to build communication strategies for regulatory agencies, the consumer and the industry.
While two years may seem to be a long time to develop standards, discussions with members of the Task Force, as well as representatives of major branded wipes manufacturers, major private label wipe manufacturers, key raw material suppliers and industry consultants indicate that there is a philosophical division within the nonwovens community. This division has made it difficult to build a consensus on standards or even guidelines.
One side in this argument feels that standards should mandate a product similar to toilet tissue in flushability. This side argues that dispersibility and biodegradability are absolute needs. Proponents of this view include both major branded wipes manufacturers, private label manufacturers, and key raw material suppliers. This appears to be the majority view, which is somewhat surprising as standards based on this view will require new product development and research investments. Supporters feel that the ultimate commercial success of this market segment depends on this type of flushability, both for consumer acceptance and confidence and to preempt government regulation. Many agreed, even those whose companies currently sell wipes flushable by size.
The second opinion in this discussion is that flushability requires only that the product safely transits the waste system, from toilet to waste treatment plant, does not negatively impact septic systems and is biodegradable. Proponents here use the tests for flushability described in a 2003 report by the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) entitled "Protocols to Assess the Breakdown of Flushable Consumer Products." There is no requirement for dispersibility, nor any requirement to perform in the waste treatment plant like toilet tissue. For example, long fibers caught at the wastewater plant and landfilled are considered no different than short wood pulp fibers which biodegrade in the plant.
The easiest way to see the difference between the two views is to examine a case study actually tested and documented in the WERF report. This case study tests "a 100% hydroentangled wet wipe with higher wet strength than conventional pulp/binder wet wipes." The analysis from the WERF report concludes "Based on these testing results, the product would be considered flushable. Moreover, the product is expected to have minimal clogging in toilets and household drainlines when disposed of as directed, as well as to be compatible with onsite and municipal wastewater treatment systems. However, this product may contribute to clogging in household drainlines if an obstruction is present like a tree root. Keeping the household drainlines free of obstructions would be the homeowner's responsibility. Moreover, this product is not expected to be compatible with household ejector and grinder pumps. This warning is usually addressed in the pump manufacturer's warranty where statements are made such as "cloths and wash towels should not be disposed into these systems." "The wipes are not expected to disintegrate during conveyance, but once they enter a municipal wastewater treatment plant, the product is expected to be screened by the bar rack or grinded in the comminutor, where the product would eventually be landfilled."
A summary of this flushable product:
* This product is NOT dispersible, even after 48 hours
* This product may cause clogs in obstructed drainlines
* This product may clog ejector and grinder pumps
* This product will end up on a screen in the wastewater treatment plant
Of the two viewpoints, the first would say this product is not flushable and would strive to create standards that would say so. The second of our two viewpoints would agree with WERF and say this product is flushable and want standards compatible with that viewpoint.
The split on these two viewpoints is significant, with major branded wipes producers taking opposing views. Private label producers along with key suppliers have also taken one side or the other.
When two very strong opinions are ranged against each other, often neither side can "win." In the best case, a meaningful compromise can be reached. In the worse case, a long unproductive stalemate results.
The difference here is that if a meaningful compromise is not reached by industry participants, government and regulatory agencies will step in and will mandate their own potentially harsh and unrealistic standards. The more successful "flushable" wipes are in the marketplace, the sooner that day will come.
Table 1 Flushable (by size) Wipes Properties Product Size (in) Strength (gli) L W CD MD Always 5.25 6.20 306 480 Wet Ones 5.75 7.50 369 1382 Kleenex Cottonelle 5.50 7.50 369 1382 Pampers Tidy Tikes 5.25 6.20 300 475 KidFresh 5.25 6.20 275 365 Pull Ups Just For Kids 5.25 6.00 350 550 Quilted Northern Moist Ones 5.50 5.50 322 455 Fresh N Up 5.50 6.00 375 450 Fresh Mates 5.60 7.50 275 350 Non Flushable Wipe 8.00 10.00 450 800 Product True Flushability Flushable Dispersible Biodegradable Always yes no 75% Wet Ones yes no 60% Kleenex Cottonelle yes no 85% Pampers Tidy Tikes yes no 75% KidFresh yes no 75% Pull Ups Just For Kids yes no 85% Quilted Northern Moist Ones yes no 85% Fresh N Up yes no 85% Fresh Mates yes no 85% Non Flushable Wipe no no 100%