Which approach would make Maine consumers stop flushing things down their toilets and instead put them in the trash where they belong:
— Tell them it’s good for the environment, or
— Tell them it will save them money?
Officials concerned with keeping Maine’s water clean are trying to find out what prompts consumers to do the right thing. Their findings may have nationwide implications.
A public awareness effort known as the “Save Your Pipes: Don’t Flush Baby Wipes” campaign was cited last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an EPA Environmental Merit Award. The campaign pointed out that disposing of things such as baby wipes — even those products touted as “disposable” — can clog filters and screens and damage equipment in wastewater treatment systems.
The campaign was a joint effort of the Maine Water Environment Association (until recently known as the Maine Wastewater Control Association), the Portland Water District and INDA, a global trade association representing hundreds of makers of nonwoven fabrics.
INDA paid the lion’s share — $113,000 — with the Maine Water Environment Association contributing $15,000 toward the cost of the public education effort.
It’s money well spent, says Aubrey Strause, president of the water environment group. She’s part of a group of volunteers that has been checking a pumping station in Westbrook, separating the stuff that clogs the system into piles of “baby wipes” — identified by industry-supplied product patterns and weaves — and other “nondispersibles” (things that don’t break down).
Strause estimates the cost of clearing municipal waste systems at $800 per pound of flushed baby wipes. She cites a survey of association members in 2010; other than the Portland Water District, those that responded spent an average of $40,500 dealing with clogs caused by wipes. Many reported dealing with clogs as often as every other day.
For that reason, the recent eight-week campaign was aimed at curbing the flushing of baby wipes. In fact, Strause says a range of products can cause clogging problems. Among the more mentionable items are “disposable” diapers, other personal wipes, paper towels and cat litter along with a range of household and personal items that people mistakenly or intentionally flush.
“You can’t just flush anything,” Strause says, adding that just because something can go down a toilet doesn’t mean it should. “When in doubt, don’t flush it.”
If you do and your plumbing gets clogged, your homeowner’s insurance might not pay for repairs.
The baby wipes campaign was not meant to condemn the items or those who use them. The message was simply: Dispose of them as trash, not as flushable waste.
In December, Consumer Reports tested “flushable” baby wipes. Consumer Reports couldn’t break them down in a small whirlpool (which shredded toilet paper), and even a 10-minute beating in an electric food mixer left the wipe intact.
Consumer Reports advised consumers not to flush baby wipes.
The industry wants to police itself, rather than be regulated by lawmakers. INDA has issued a series of “guidance documents” on flushability of woven products; these offer a multistep process to determine which products might or might not be flushed safely.
Strause says her association is looking ahead to a series of facilitated meetings that she hopes will result in warnings on some packages saying “Do Not Flush.”
Manufacturers are firmly against such labeling, saying it would hurt sales.
“Clear labeling and clear packaging is education,” Strause said.
Until better labeling happens, members of her group will look at consumer education efforts to date, analyzing what messages work and which ones don’t. They plan to share that information freely with water quality professionals across the country.
To learn more, visit www.SaveYourPipes.org.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.