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Merkley, Collins introduce bill to wipe out troublesome non-flushable wipes from sewer systems

U.S. Capitol
U.S. Capitol

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) – Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced Wednesday the bipartisan Wastewater Infrastructure Pollution Prevention and Environmental Safety (WIPPES) Act, a bill to address health, ecosystem and wastewater infrastructure concerns caused by the flushing of non-flushable wet wipes.

“Wastewater treatment facilities run equipment around the clock so that Oregonians’ rivers and streams are safe and clean,” said Senator Merkley. “When non-flushable wipes are sent through our sewage systems as a means of disposal, Oregon’s wastewater facilities face costly repairs and maintenance. Furthermore, these wipes are made of synthetic plastic fibers – and because they are not biodegradable, these wipes break down into harmful micro plastics. This bill is a necessary first step in making sure these products are accurately labeled so they can be appropriately disposed of, keeping our water clean and ensuring our wastewater infrastructure is safe and efficient, a top concern I hear from small communities across Oregon.”

“Many consumers who use wet wipes are unaware that flushing these products creates significant problems for plumbing, wastewater treatment equipment, and septic systems,” said Senator Collins. “This legislation would require manufactures to label non-flushable wet wipes, providing consumers with the information they need to safely dispose of them.  I urge my colleagues to support this commonsense legislation that will help prevent homeowners and taxpayers from having to pay for expensive repairs.”

The WIPPES Act addresses the pervasive, but ultimately preventable problem of the flushing of non-flushable wet wipes. Many of these products are composed of manufactured plastic fibers or other strong fibers, and while these products are not marketed as flushable, consumers frequently flush them into sewer systems as a means of disposal. Due to strong fibers, these types of wipes do not break down as they travel through the sewer systems. Instead, the wipes become magnets attracting fats, oils and grease and become obstructions in sewerage systems pipes that clog pumps, block sewer collection systems, and jam motors that lead to sewage backups and treatment equipment failures.

Specifically, the WIPPES Act:

  • Directs the Federal Trade Commission, in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue regulations on “Do Not Flush” labeling requirements for the covered products defined in the bill, which includes baby wipes, household wipes, disinfecting wipes or personal care wipes.
  • Authorizes a grant program at EPA ($5 million annually) to support and expand education and outreach activities by states, local governments and non-profit organizations to ratepayers. These grants will increase awareness of the label and proper disposal methods for these wipes.

The WIPPES Act is endorsed by Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA), the City of John Day (Oregon), Clackamas Water Environment Services (Oregon), Kimberly-Clark, Maine Rural Water Association, Maine Water Environment Association, Maine Water Utilities Association, National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), National Stewardship Action Council, Oak Lodge Water Services District (Oak Grove, Oregon), Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies, Portland Water District (Maine), Procter & Gamble, and Water Environment Federation (WEF).

“There are different wipes for different purposes with different recommended disposal paths.  The wipes industry is committed to responsibly managing those wipes products that should not be flushed and protecting public infrastructure and the environment. Prominent ‘Do Not Flush’ labeling, visual symbols on packages and robust education programs are critical to raising consumer awareness about proper disposal of these products. INDA applauds Senator Merkley’s and Senator Collins’ vision and work to address this issue in a meaningful way. We look forward to working with the wastewater sector and other stakeholders to support this bill’s swift passage in Congress,” said INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry President Dave Rousse

“CASA applauds Senator Merkley and Senator Collins for introducing the WIPPES Act. This bipartisan legislation addresses the flushing of non-flushable wipes that has plagued the clean water sector for decades and protects the billions of dollars ratepayers have invested to clean up our waterways and protect public health. Lacking proper disposal instructions, consumers unwittingly end up flushing these single-use, synthetic wipes that can clog pipes, pumps, and treatment equipment. Establishing commonsense "Do Not Flush" labeling practices addresses this problem at the source. CASA also appreciates the bill's grants program to support education and outreach activities that expand ratepayer awareness of the "Do Not Flush" label and ensure these wipes do not make their way into our wastewater systems,” said Executive Director of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies Adam Link.

“Many disposable wipes cause problems when flushed. Wipes can clog pipes in homes and the sewer system, leading to sewage overflows and costly maintenance. The WIPPES Act will provide crucial information consumers need to ensure they properly dispose of wipes. We thank Senator Merkley, Representative Lowenthal, and Representative McClain for their leadership on this important legislation to protect water quality,” said Clackamas County Commissioner Martha Schrader. 

"The Water Environment Federation (WEF) applauds Sen. Merkley and Sen. Collins for introducing the Wastewater Infrastructure Pollution Prevention and Environmental Safety Act (WIPPES) in the U.S. Senate. WEF’s members are on the front lines of combatting the extensive problems that wipes cause when flushed down toilets and into sewer systems. Through labeling requirements and public education, this bill will increase understanding that wipes should never be flushed. The bill will also give the federal government the authority to set standards for wipes so they breakdown when flushed, and therefore reduce the amount of sewer pipe blockages, damage to treatment plant equipment, and risks to water professionals who must remove them. Not only do water professionals strongly support the discontinued flushing of wipes, but ratepayers will also benefit by not continuing to subsidize the cost of repairing the problems caused by wipes. Congress should swiftly pass the WIPPES Act,” said Walt Marlowe, P.E., CAE, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation.

“On behalf of the hundreds of publicly-owned treatment works NACWA represents nationwide, I applaud Sens. Collins and Merkley for their bipartisan legislation to require Do Not Flush labeling on non-flushable wet wipes. Non-flushable wipes do not break down as they travel through the sewer system, resulting in clogs and blockages that cost public utilities money, put workers at risk, and cause environmental harm. Simply put, Toilets are Not Trashcans. The Wastewater Infrastructure Pollution Prevention and Environmental Safety Act would require labeling for non-flushable wet wipes, a reasonable approach to protect homeowners, wastewater infrastructure, and the environment. NACWA looks forward to working with Congress to advance this important legislation,” said Adam Krantz, CEO, National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

“The National Stewardship Action Council helped to negotiate the language which has been adopted in several states and is now reflected in the WIPPES Act.  Wipes labeling is a national problem, and we need a national solution.  We are very grateful to the authors and our industry partners for introducing a bi-partisan bill that can pass this session,” said Heidi Sanborn, Executive Director, National Stewardship Action Council.

“It’s costly for the District and ratepayers to repair blockages in the system, but blockages from wipes are completely avoidable,” said Susan Keil, Board President, Oak Lodge Water Services.

"We have been dealing with the negative impacts of disposable wipes being flushed into our sewers and treatment plants for over a decade. We were part of a working group to address this, and we hosted some of the first work to quantify the type of material that was being flushed and how it affects sewer systems. To see this legislation after all this effort is gratifying, and we are excited that a clear labeling standard will be applied to these materials. We applaud Senator Collins and Senator Merkley for advancing such an important piece of legislation,” said Scott Firmin, Director of Wastewater Services for the Portland Water District (Maine).

Final bill text can be found here.

Final bill summary can be found here.

Article Topic Follows: Oregon-Northwest

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