Canadian Consulting Engineer

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Conversations: Not So Flushable

Barry Orr and the organization MESUG are speaking up about the problems new personal hygiene products cause in wastewater treatment plants.


Barry Orr and the organization MESUG are speaking up about the problems new personal hygiene products cause in wastewater treatment plants.

MESUG, the “Municipal Enforcement Sewer User Group” in Ontario, involves 25 municipalities. Their representatives such as engineers, plant managers and operators, meet every few months. MESUG has been leading the charge to have a standard to define what personal hygiene products should rightfully be labelled “flushable.” CCE spoke to Barry Orr of London, Ontario, MESUG’s spokesperson.

Q. What really is the problem with personal hygiene products?

Wastewater treatment system operators have been seeing pumps and equipment plugging up, and the costs are spiraling out of control. It’s just not sustainable. So MESUG wanted to get ahead of the issue with the manufacturers and create some education and awareness.

The big thing is that the products out there are being labelled “flushable,” when they are not. Some of these products don’t break down like toilet paper. They are material based and create massive quantities of rags, which plug grinders and other equipment.

We estimate that it costs close to $250 million a year across Canada to unplug material in wastewater treatment plants — material that should be in the garbage can anyway. There are 3,700 wastewater systems and the average cost seems to be around $50-$80,000 per year for unplugging equipment. However, some municipalities say that the cost is way more than that, and in actuality one plug can cost them as much as $5,000.

Not a lot of people have been looking at the figures until now because in the wastewater business you are expected to just deal with the waste as it comes to you. It’s a matter of “That’s your job.”

Q. What’s wrong with the manufacturer labelling now?

For example, here’s the labelling from one product: “For best results, flush one or two wipes at a time, and if connected to residential sewage ejector pumps, do not flush.” The manufacturer has labelled the product “flushable” but then it has included wording to say that the product will plug a sewage ejector pump. But who the heck in the general public knows about their sewage ejector pumps?

So we’re seeing a lot of confusion. Now everybody thinks everything is flushable. We’re seeing plants having to deal with a lot of feminine hygiene products, a lot of condoms, dental floss, cotton swabs etc.

Q. What is MESUG’s ultimate goal?

To have a Canadian standard for the labelling of “flushable” products, and to create awareness and education that toilets are not garbage cans. We’re raising funds, and we met with Industry Canada and they said, “go and create a standard, and then we’ll enforce it.”

Fundraising for the standard has been slowly coming in as city engineers have approach councils for funding support. [But] I can’t understand why more municipalities and manufacturers are not getting behind this. MESUG estimates that the cost of developing a CSA standard is $153,000. Our environment and infrastructure needs to be well protected now and for our children’s children’s future! cce

Postscript: Robert Haller, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, says the CWWA is having discussions with the flushable wipes industry association INDA toward finding a joint solution. CWWA is also providing information to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities about the problem.