Flush the Misleading Labels on Flushable Wipes

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In the grand tradition of misidentifying problems and offering proposals that won’t work, the city council of Washington, D.C. wants to force manufacturers of flushable toilet wipes to change the label to “non-flushable.” There are four reasons it's bad policy.

First, flushable wipes are flushable. It's true some older versions were not perfect, but newer ones are made of cellulose fibers – just like toilet paper. That means they are flushable and break down after being submerged in water. Yes, some varieties can take longer to disintegrate than toilet paper, but they lack the plastic fibers found in the non-flushable kind (e.g., baby wipes), so they break down.

Second, flushable wipes are trivial when worrying about what causes problems in sewers. New York City had a similar concern, but a study found that flushable wipes were not even 2% of what actually got stuck in inlets. The vast majority of items were non-flushable paper and garbage like disposable hand towels (34%), baby wipes (38%), cosmetic and surface wipes (19%), and feminine products (7%).

Third, changing a label on flushable wipes won't accomplish much. There are much bigger problems affecting metropolitan sewers systems. An NYC “State of the Sewers” report warned, “Cooking oil and grease are wastes that the City’s sewer system cannot handle and should not be discarded down the drain.”

Yet, people do just that. Because Washington, D.C., like NYC, is home to cultures from all over the world, cooking practices can vary by neighborhood, as do disposal habits when it comes to oil. Oil binds the non-flushable paper that makes its way into the sewers. When that happens, gigantic “fatbergs” develop like they did in London.

But blaming this problem on flushable wipes is silly. In short, if people stopped flushing oil and grease down the toilet – not to mention garbage like paper towels and cigarettes – the sewers would be in far better shape.

Fourth, it's only going to help lawyers. The labeling for products is governed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), not by city councils. The FTC has already established rigorous standards that manufacturers must meet for a product to be called flushable. The FTC will not allow a business to lie in its advertising.

Crucially, a government also cannot compel a business to lie. Washington, D.C. wants to compel false speech by forcing flushable wipes manufacturers to falsely state that the FTC is wrong and their wipes are not flushable. In December, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg said compelling false speech was a violation of the First Amendment and placed a preliminary injunction on the D.C. law.

If the D.C. city council had simply paid attention to what already happened in New York, all of this could have been avoided. NYC was so convinced flushable wipes were the culprit that they proposed an outright ban on them, but reality forced them to back away from this pointless regulation.

Washington, D.C. should do the same. If not for the science reasons, they should consider the unintended consequences of their regulations. Flushable wipes are gaining popularity in part because they provide a portable added hygiene benefit that toilet paper does not. Incontinence affects far more elderly women than men, so trying to curtail their use unfairly limits the mobility of older women while solving nothing.

If we're being realistic, government solutions that involve forcing consumers to change their behavior by giving up a product they clearly like are not going to work. Far too often, governments look to regulations and bans to fix problems that should be solved through other means. Even if all flushable wipes disappeared tomorrow, the cooking oil, paper towels, baby wipes, and other garbage that are the real culprits in American sewers would still exist.

Yes, there should be a public awareness campaign urging people not to flush things that most of us have known since childhood do not go in the toilet, but the long-term solution is to fix the sewage system. If our 19th Century sewers cannot handle life in 2018, then it’s time for an upgrade. Alternatively, the D.C. city council could hire workers to clean the city’s system manually, just like in ancient Rome. Then, they could claim to be problem solvers as well as job creators.