It's a municipal problem, so the refrain goes, and so the Canadian Water and Waste-water Association is joining forces with its American counterpart, the Water Environment Federation, to take aim at the popular towelettes.
The wipes — billed as a cleaner alternative to toilet paper that's perfectly OK to flush down the toilet — are giving many municipalities fits as they grapple with costly clogs.
Personal wipes are a $6-billion industry in North America, with experts predicting sales will soar by as much as six per cent annually over the next five years. Canadian municipalities, however, say the wipes are costing ratepayers as much as $250 million a year.
In both the U.S. and Canada, manufacturers voluntarily test products for flushability and insist their wipes pass with flying colours, but federal laws don't require third-party assessment or verification.
Both the CWWA and its U.S. sister organization are now pushing manufacturers to allow independent testing of their products, and to label them with more clarity. The CWWA is also exploring the creation of a Canadian standard for use of the term "flushable," said Robert Haller, the association's executive director.
"We have to move in conjunction with efforts in the United States so that if we end up with an industry standard, we want it to be harmonized on both sides of the border," Haller said.
"We don't want our manufacturing sector having to make a different quality for Canada than the U.S. And it's the same issue on both sides. It's hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in municipalities to clear pipes, to repair grinders, and on increased maintenance costs."
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is also looking into flushable wipes.
"It's an issue we consider a real problem," a spokesman said. "We're working with our member communities and we'll be proposing recommendations some time early in the new year."
In the face of growing public scrutiny about their products in Canada over the past few weeks, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry — known as INDA — has reached out to Canadian municipalities, pledging to do more to help educate consumers on what can and cannot be flushed down the toilet.
While waste-water officials are currently drafting a rebuttal to INDE, which represents manufacturers like Kimberly-Clark and SC Johnson, they're also pleased the group has finally made contact after years of silence in the face of complaints from Canadian municipalities.
"That's a big step, and very encouraging, because for a long time they'd just completely ignore us," said Paul Drca, the manager of environmental quality for the City of Windsor in southwestern Ontario.
Drca said Canadian municipalities and waste-water officials have two objectives — a federal flushability standard and a widespread public education campaign.
"How do you define flushable? If you put something in a toilet bowl and hit the handle and it goes down the toilet, some manufacturers would argue that's flushable, but it's not," he said.
"Yeah, it was flushed, but it hasn't disappeared. Some of the products labelled flushable simply do not disintegrate."
An even bigger battle, Drca said, needs to be waged against public attitudes, particularly in the face of glitzy advertising campaigns that are convincing consumers that toilet paper is no longer sufficient to keep their nether regions fresh.
"We have found the enemy and he is us," Drca said.
"It's the citizens, the residents of the community that are using these products in droves. They have to be educated that these wipes do not go down the toilet — and it's not just these wipes, it's paper towel, feminine hygiene products, baby wipes, diapers. We have to get the message out — use them if you like, but do not flush them."