The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is looking to slam the lid on flushable wipes, which it claims are mislabeled and responsible for costly repairs to septic tanks and city sewers.
The MPCA will ask the Legislature to ban such labels as "flushable," "septic safe" or "sewer safe" on wipes sold in Minnesota. The proposal also would require packaging to include a "do not flush" warning, so consumers know the wipes should be thrown in the trash, not the toilet.
City officials have complained for several years that the multipurpose sanitary cloths fail to break down, despite assurances on packaging that they are "flushable." Utility workers say wipes snag in pipes and valves, clogging wastewater treatment systems.
"Our cities are spending a ton of money every year — and so are private citizens — to have their pipes cleaned out," said Craig Johnson, a lobbyist with League of Minnesota Cities. "These do not [break down]. They sit there and collect debris until they form a big ball that plugs the system."
This year's legislative session will focus on water issues, so this was the right time to take action on the issue, Johnson said. It's unclear whether the Legislature will move on the proposal.
Popularity of disposable wipes has increased as manufacturers advertise them as convenient for cleaning needs from removing makeup to scrubbing messy babies and disinfecting counters.
Unlike toilet paper, some wipes are more than 30 percent plastic and aren't biodegradable, critics say.
"Toilet paper rapidly falls apart in the system; these wipes do not. It becomes a problem because our treatment facilities are not designed to accommodate these," said MPCA legislative director Greta Gauthier. "The toilet is not a trash can."
At eight listening sessions around the state regarding water infrastructure, wipes were one of municipalities' top concerns, Gauthier said. Smaller towns, in particular, have been hit with enormous costs associated with flushed wipes.
In Avon, Minn., residents were forced to replace four lift station pumps in their system for $73,000 due to repeated clogs. Homeowners in Lewiston, Minn., bought a $70,000 grinder to tear apart wipes before they reach the pumps.
"It's not fair for cities to have to absorb these costs," Gauthier said.
Last year, the city of Wyoming sued six makers of wet wipes, including Kimberly-Clark, in federal court. The suit alleges that the so-called "flushable" wipes don't break down and instead form huge white clumps that sewer workers have dubbed "polar bears."
Bob Brand, a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark, said he couldn't comment on the Minnesota proposal to ban "flushable" from labels, but said the company stands behind its claims that wipes with those designations will break up and not clog pipes and treatment systems.
Most of the materials blocking sewage systems are products that shouldn't be flushed, such as baby wipes. He said the company's baby wipes are clearly labeled "do not flush."
"The wipes that we designed to be flushable are, and we have a lot of research and testing to back that up," Brand said.
Brand said he's not aware of any municipality or state that has banned the words "flushable" from labels.
If lawmakers chose to pass the bill, manufacturers likely will have more than a year to meet the new label requirements. Legislation with the same aim is currently in the works in New York and Maine, Gauthier said.