By Dave Galvin, Hazardous Waste Program Manager at the King County Local Hazardous Waste Management Program
To flush or not to flush? This is a question many of us have faced over the years. Those who live with on-site septic systems are particularly sensitive to the quandary of what goes down the drain. Anything other than human waste and toilet paper (that is specifically made to break apart almost immediately) should be kept out of such systems, especially if there are small pumps involved along the way, which can easily clog. After you’ve had to clean a clogged pump or pipe by hand, your sensitivity to such matters goes up exponentially.
Large municipal wastewater systems, it turns out, have similar concerns. Items that don’t break down quickly do not belong in the sewer. Many such items end up jamming even industrial-scale pumps and other machinery, costing millions of dollars each year in the US for repairs. Other material, including small plastics and latex, don’t decompose in the normal sewage treatment process and end up contaminating the leftover solids, which, in many locales, are beneficially reused as a soil amendment known as a biosolid. This is analogous to finding plastic fruit stickers and bags in the municipal compost — “hard to handle” end-of-life management.
Some consumer products are labeled as “flushable,” but are they really? Items such as baby wipes and skin cleaners, paper towels, feminine care products, condoms, diapers, and even dental floss, are usually not designed to break apart immediately and are thus not intended to be flushed. Some wipes are marketed as “flushable” while others as “disposable”; they are made by the nonwoven fabric industry and are supposed to meet certain voluntary guidelines developed by this industry.
A group of wastewater and water quality associations is meeting with representatives of the nonwoven fabric industry (via a trade association known as the International Nonwovens and Disposables Association) to explore a “product stewardship approach.” What, you ask? Take-back of leftover wipes? No, let’s not go there. Instead, they have agreed to discuss the challenges that the wastewater agencies face and to tighten the requirements spelled out in the current Guidance Document for Assessing the Flushability of Nonwoven Disposable Products (third edition). A fourth edition is currently in the works.
Here is an instance where the product stewardship dialogue actually addresses design standards! How do you set criteria for flushability such that the product truly breaks down in ways that are compatible with on-site and municipal wastewater systems? How do you ensure that these products are truly acceptable to flush, that they are “biological nutrients” in McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle-to-Cradle sense? How do you establish clear and meaningful labeling and marketing standards for what is flushable and what is not? Interesting questions indeed, and a dialogue sure to blaze new territory in the product stewardship universe.
This discourse illustrates an expanded definition of product stewardship, one that covers the full lifecycle, including design and labeling decisions that affect end-of-life disposition. Who knows – maybe Scott Cassel should be invited to the “World of Wipes” international conference to expand the idea of what it means to affect sustainable product stewardship.
“Hard to handle” takes on new meaning where upstream meets downstream.
Dave Galvin is a Program Manager for the Hazardous Waste Management Unit in King County (Seattle, Washington), part of the multi-agency “Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County.” This program addresses household and small business hazardous wastes in the Seattle metropolitan area. Dave began working in this subject area in 1979 and was the one who coined the term “household hazardous waste.” He was the founding president of the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association and was previously the president of the Product Stewardship Institute’s Board of Directors. For additional information, Dave can be reached at Dave.Galvin@kingcounty.gov.