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A CLOSE LOOK AT FLUSHABILITY STANDARDS - (OR THE LACK THEREOF)
By Ruby Pajares for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, reprinted with permisssion
When I was a kid, wasting food was a big no-no. My parents worked hard to put food on our table, so throwing it out just didn't happen. If there was a meal on your plate, you ate it. So you can imagine the stress I felt when I didn't want what was on my plate. Terrified at the thought of getting into trouble (and without a dog to pitch in), I looked to our toilet.
I can't lie – that wasn't the only time I used the toilet as a waste disposal. I was easily mesmerized by the swirling motion of water that engulfed almost anything I threw down. To my young fascinated mind, it was magical how things just disappeared. How was I to know that wasn't really the case?
To my memory, awareness campaigns in schools didn't exist back then. And when kids hit a certain age, they go to the washroom by themselves. So it was just me and the magic toilet.
That's just one example of how the wastewater system was abused in the '80s. Today, when you look across the province and across the country, you can see many more examples that go far beyond a child's innocent ignorance, especially when we look at what's considered flushable. Children, adults, working professionals – the reality is, everyone's guilty whether they know it or not.
Let's take a closer look at the problem. Specifically, what does "flushable" mean?
Beginning fifteen years ago, the label "flushable" was used as a selling point for convenience. Wipes, feminine napkins, pet litter – you could find them packaged and marketed as flushable. But these products can cause pipes to clog and sewage pumps to break, often resulting in basement flooding and overflows into rivers, streams, and lakes.
The idea of using toilets and drains as waste disposals was no longer a thing you did when no one was looking – it was publicly encouraged. Even with public outcry today, there are still wipes that say "flushable" out there.
But how is this possible? If items aren't supposed to be flushed down the toilet, how can manufacturers label them as such? We reconnected with Barry Orr, the City of London's Sewer Outreach and Control Inspector and Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group representative to discuss this a little further.
What is considered flushable?
"Currently there is nothing that exists that manufacturing companies must abide by. There is no official standard for flushability," says Barry. "There is an existing guidance document that manufacturers produced, but wastewater representatives were not involved in creating this document. Wastewater industry representatives requested for modifications but to this day modifications have not been made.
"The 'flushable' label has only caused confusion," Barry added. "If one wipe is considered flushable and another isn't, how is the average consumer supposed to know which is okay to flush and why? From the average consumer's perspective, labeling products as "flushable" encourages two misconceptions: 1) The idea that other waste-products could be "flushable" too, and 2) that the toilet is a place to dispose of waste. But because the wastewater system was designed over 100 years ago, the truth is, nothing is flushable except for human waste and toilet paper."
Last year, both sides (manufacturing and wastewater industries) attempted to work together to define what is considered flushable. But this union, under the banner of the International Standard Organization, stalled and meetings are now suspended.
Barry explained, "In a wastewater system replication test, where a container has four litres of water and rotates at 13 rpm, we determined that the wastewater system needs products to disperse within 30 minutes. Manufacturers, on the other hand, say they need at least three hours. Without an official standard, nothing is enforceable."
And it doesn't take a replication test to see dispersion, or lack thereof.
"When I first started in the wastewater industry (23 years ago), we didn't see a lot of what we're seeing now. When you had an overflow that went out to a creek or a river, the grating wasn't covered in the evidence. Today, you can see that they're covered by wipes and condoms and feminine products and non-flushables."
But there are some improvements that can be found today. Several products have a "do not flush" label or similar wording on them, for example. And after testing, Barry confirmed there are some wipes available in Canada that could pass the wastewater industry's requirements. But as much as Barry would like to show support for a product, he still hesitates because there's nothing to hold manufacturers accountable.
"Without an official standard, a product that is packaged as safe for flushing today can have a different composition tomorrow and still have identical packaging."
Standardizing flushability isn't merely a wipes-only issue too. If flushability was officially standardized tomorrow, hundreds of products would be affected. The packaging and marketing of products (for instance, wipes, condoms, tampons, and feminine pads) would have to be reevaluated and possibly modified.
With the surge in public outcry, governments have started weighing in on the issue. In November 2016, the UK's House of Lords announced they would meet to discuss this very issue. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission is also taking action against Kimberly-Clark and Pental as well.
Ideally, Barry isn't hoping for these problematic products to cease from existing. Instead, he simply hopes that flushability is standardized and that manufacturers market their products correctly and labels their products clearly. "All wipes should be clearly labeled do not flush. Not hidden under the fold. And not in small text that's difficult to find."
In the meantime, what can be done?
While the issue itself seems to be simple – don't flush non-flushables down the toilet – solving the problem is more extensive. Consumers, manufacturers, and government all play a role.
Based on Barry's experience, outreach and education is a very effective approach to solving the problem. Most people, like my kid-self, simply don't know. With the right information, people can make better decisions.
Questioning what is flushable is a starting point. Before you flush, or before you wash something down the drain, take a moment to think about where your waste goes after it disappears.
To come up with a list of what's not flushable is possible too. Wipes, baby wipes, feminine pads, tampons, tampon applicators, needles, condoms, pills, plastics, diapers, pet litter, "flushable" dog poop bags, hair, toys, cotton swabs, dental floss, paper towels, food waste... But the list can go on, so keep it simple. Look at what is flushable. Remember, if it's not human waste or toilet paper, the wastewater system wasn't designed to handle it.
Based on his expansive experience in the wastewater industry, Barry concludes that "pollution prevention is the most efficient and sustainable method to protect our infrastructure and to protect our water environment, yet for some reason, it's the least chosen method."
My childhood story is just one example of how the wastewater system was abused in the ‘80s by one person. Add the ignorance of thousands, and the burdens of such things as microplastics and industry waste, and our waters desperately need everyone – consumers, manufacturers, government – to understand the connection between person-to-drain-to-lake.
Last month, in the City of London, the Your Turn program's biodegradable cups became available at public libraries for free to educate and encourage the community to dispose of their fats, oils, and grease accordingly. "Community members can collect their used fats, oils, and grease in a biodegradable cup. When the cup is full, the person can either choose to put it in the waste bin, or take the full cups to an enviro depot."
While industry players work on standardizing flushability, a little more awareness and initiative can go a long way. Looking back now, and having worked for Waterkeeper / Swim Drink Fish Canada, I wish my kid-self received a lesson or two on what happens after you flush.
By connecting our toilet to the nearby river or the lake downstream (or any drain in our home), the magic behind the toilet's disappearing act would've coincidentally disappeared. My connection to the river and the lake could've been more obvious. And my decisions, even at a young age, could've been more thoughtful. Everyone has the ability to make their local lake, river, or stream more swimmable, drinkable, and fishable.
So let's make better decisions. Garbage can, or toilet?