The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants the word "flushable" taken off disposable wipe labels – because they really aren't that flushable.
These disposable wipes, which can be used for changing diapers, personal hygiene or cleaning the house, have caused major problems to cities' wastewater systems when they're flushed down the toilet, the MPCA said in a news release Wednesday.
The problem is the wipes don't break down the way toilet paper does, so if they snag on an imperfection in a sewer pipe, passing debris and grease will catch on the wipe and create a "ball" that eventually grows to clog the pipe, the agency explains.
In recent years, cities have had to spend thousands of dollars on manually clearing clogs and replacing equipment because of the wipes. In fact, several Minnesota cities are involved in a class-action lawsuit against companies that make these wipes, the MPCA says, while other cities have requested a "flat-out ban" on selling them.
The agency also wants to require that wipe-makers put "do not flush" on labels.
Doing this, the MPCA says, will help change the public's behavior and eventually reduce the number of wipes that are flushed down the toilet, which will in turn reduce the costs to cities across the state.
The League of Minnesota Cities says it supports the MPCA's proposal and plans to work with the agency.
A look at how much it's costing cities
Minnetonka, which has a population of more than 48,000, has been clearing wipes from its pumps every three days since 2007, the MPCA notes. Clearing a backup costs the city $1,000-$1,500 for each clog. And once or twice a year, clogs cause sewage to back up into homes.
In St. Peter, with a population of more than 11,000, the city has spent about $100,000 in the past five years to clear clogs and repair pumps – all because of the wipes.
But it's not just a problem in larger communities. Avon, which has a population of 970, has spent $73,000 to upgrade lift station pumps in the past few years – and the city spends almost $4,000 a year to clear wipes out of pumps.
What do the wipe makers say?
The companies that make the disposable wipes haven't commented much publicly on claims they aren't flushable, except to say that they can be flushed down the toilet, WDAY reported.
In 2014, after a federal lawsuit was filed in New York against several wipe makers, a spokesperson for Kimberly-Clark told ABC News:
“Kimberly-Clark has an extensive testing process to ensure that our flushable wipes products meet or exceed all industry guidelines and we stand behind our claims of flushability.”
The lawsuit says there are no legal requirements the wipes must meet to claim there are "flushable" – only voluntary guidelines that must be followed at the discretion of manufacturers, ABC News reported.
Recent actions by the Federal Trade Commission forced one wipe maker to not advertise disposable wipes as flushable or safe for sewers or septic systems unless it can substantiate the claims. Read more on that here.