CALIFORNIA — A monster lurks in California's sewers.
Fed by grease and countless baby wipes, massive rag balls have appeared in sewer systems in the state and across the nation. When these masses block sewer pipes, they can force human sewage out onto the street or even into kitchen sinks.
New legislation crafted by policy wonks in concert with disposable wipe manufacturers aims to educate people on what can be flushed and what shouldn't be.
Assembly Bill 818 would zero in on the cleaning wipes most often used on babies and others made for home cleaning.
The bill would require certain products to carry a label reading "Do Not Flush" and a small illustration. All products containing plastic or petroleum would need to have such a label. However, there is less agreement on what precisely qualifies as flushable.
"Where we differ is that we trust and believe in the flushability standards," said Lara Wyss, president of the Responsible Flushing Alliance, a nonprofit industry association. The industry, not the government, establishes those standards.
The industry has already taken significant steps toward educating consumers, including creating Wyss' organization founded in Aug. 2020. Wyss has been busily creating educational materials to teach people before a bill has even passed.
The market segment is big business. Products like Clorox wipes are categorized as "nonwovens," a large and diverse industry valued at about $40 billion. While companies have invested in educating buyers, the products themselves are largely unchanged as the state infrastructure continues to endure negative effects.
These huge masses — and the problems they can cause — are the accumulation of a collection of factors.
Rag balls can be a burden on any sewer system, but California's climate and drought problems have made the state particularly susceptible. As water becomes more scarce, plant and tree roots become more desperate for water and can intrude into or underneath sewage pipes, slowing or stopping the flow. Rainfall shortages also heighten the risk of blockage. Without a regular surge of precipitation, the content of sewage pipes can pile up, leading to costly blockages. They can even result in rag balls weighing hundreds of pounds.
These rag balls can be stretched out to 20 feet and beyond, requiring special attention. Local sanitation agencies are forced to send staff, sometimes even heavy equipment, to pull these obstructions from sewer drains. If such maintenance is not done, sewage could spill over onto city streets.
Part of the problem for sanitation departments is to convince consumers to throw out something they would prefer to flush. Jessica Gauger, director of legislative advocacy and public affairs for the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, said people don't want filthy rags harboring an offensive odor in their trash. Plus, they look like something that can be flushed.
"You have a range of products that are marketed as flushable and look and feel like they are but are actually engineered to be extremely strong," she said.
While changes in marketing could help, she said, convincing consumers to change their behavior may be a more difficult task.
Other environmental impacts worry Gauger. Many of the wipes contain plastics that leach into the water and find their way into the environment. That problem is shared with clothing, which has increasingly included microplastics that can harm the environment.
Right now, the standards of what is flushable and what isn't are not included in the law.
"If the company determines it's flushable, then the company is able to market it as flushable, and there's nothing that can stop them from doing that," Gauger said.
California has recently flexed its policy muscle, passing progressive environmental laws with enough force to effect change with national impact. Gov. Gavin Newsom's aggressive emissions reduction standards have forced automakers to quickly push out green technologies faster to remain competitive in California once standards officially change.
Policies to force disposable wipe manufacturers to label their products with "Do Not Flush" messaging have already been implemented in Oregon and Washington. California's bill could further pave the way to national legislation.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, has introduced bipartisan legislation crafted with manufacturers to establish a federal labeling standard. Whether it passes, Gauger expects the standard established in California and other states to begin to appear across the country anyway.
But, she said, these improvements in policy are just steps in the right direction. While a labeling standard is something both sides want, there is no ingredient list for what can go into a flushable product.
AB 818 is the result of nearly three years of discussions, and Gauger said CASA has been happy with the cooperation from manufacturers.
Now, the legislation may be on the verge of going through.
"It's been a long time coming," Gauger said.