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Wastewater plants being clogged by so-called "flushable" wet wipes

Las Virgenes Municipal Water District
Some of the wipes which clogged Las Virgenes Municipal Water District wastewater treatment system pumps.

New state law requires label changes to try to educate people about the problem.

You open up a packet of wet wipes, which says “flushable” on it. You wipe your hands.

And then you flush it down the drain. But there’s a problem. Flushable means it will safely go down your toilet. But, it may cause huge problems for your community’s sewer system.

"The main problem is most of the flushable (in quotes) wipes have a base that's either nylon or polypropylene to help them stay together when you use them, and those just don't degrade in the sewers," said John Meredith, who's a Senior Maintenance Mechanic and Collection System Technician with the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.

"It can plug our pumps, and wrap around the shaft on our pumps."

The District provides wastewater treatment services for parts of eastern Ventura County and western Los Angeles County.

The wet wipes problem isn’t just one facing the Las Virgenes District.

Jessica Gauger is the Director of Legal Advocacy and Public Affairs for the California Association of Sanitary Agencies.

"I would say it is the most universal problem we hear about from our agencies." said Gauger.

She says with the surge in use of antibacterial wipes during the pandemic, the problem became worse.

The industry lobbied for legislation to help. AB 818 was just signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. Gauger said it will require packaging for diaper wipes, cleaning wipes, and cosmetic wipes to have clear “Do Not Flush” labeling and symbols.

The "Do Not Flush" logo will appear on all wet wipes sold in California beginning in January, 2022.

In the past, some manufacturers have claimed that their wipes will quickly disintegrate and not cause problems. But, there are no generally accepted standards.

Those in the wastewater industry say it’s an issue which is costing all of us money. At some point, the costs associated with clearing the clogs, and repairing the damage shows up in our wastewater bills.

The wastewater treatment industry is hoping this simple effort, education, will help reduce the problem.

"It's really about changing consumer behavior and habits," said Gauger.