WESTBROOK — People buying baby wipes in Greater Portland soon will have a hard time claiming they didn’t know that wipes shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet.
Starting Wednesday, signs will line the shelves in the baby wipe aisles at area Hannaford grocery stores and, when baby wipes are purchased, a message will print out on the receipt with a reminder not to flush them.
Two television advertisements will also begin airing as part of an eight-week education campaign – a collaboration among the Portland Water District, the Maine Wastewater Control Association and INDA, the association of the non-woven fabrics industry.
The effort could become a model for future education campaigns around the country, where sewer districts are facing costly clogs from flushed “wet wipes.”
The groups announced the campaign at a joint press conference Tuesday at the Westbrook Treatment Facility on Park Road.
The partnership emerged from a 2011 effort by the Maine Wastewater Control Association to pass a law that would have forced products labeled as “flushable” to meet certain criteria.
The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee did not support the bill, but did see value in the wastewater association working with the trade group to resolve the problem of disposable products clogging up sewer systems, said Aubrey Strause, president of the Maine Wastewater Control Association.
The wastewater association contributed $15,000, collected through donations, to the campaign, Strause said.
The rest of the $113,000 cost was covered by the North Carolina-based trade group, she said.
The purpose of the campaign is to cut down on clogs, which can create overflows and require costly fixes for homeowners and public wastewater facilities.
The Portland Water District installed screens at two pump stations in Westbrook, on Brown Street and East Bridge Street, in 2009 to catch materials that were causing several clogs a week. The project cost $4.5 million – an expense that had to be passed on to customers, said Ronald Miller, general manager of the Portland Water District.
He said the screens pick up about 120 pounds of materials each week and about 16 percent of the materials are baby wipes.
Other problem materials include paper towels, napkins, tissues, feminine hygiene products and household wipes. Even baby wipes that are labeled “flushable” get caught in the screens.
Strause said studies will be conducted at the end of the campaign to see if it makes a difference. If so, the campaign may be replicated in other parts of the state and country, she said.
The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 wastewater agencies, has been hearing a growing number of wipe-related complaints from sewer system operators for the past four years, according to Associated Press reports about the issue. Those complaints appear to coincide with increased marketing and sales of “flushable” wipes, a market that is projected to keep growing.
Some sewer districts have installed expensive shredding equipment or set up traps to figure out who is flushing the problem wipes.
It’s also an international problem.
A Canadian group trying to address the problem estimates that flushed wipes cost municipal sewage treatment plants in Canada about $250 million per year, according to the AP.
And, last July, London sewer officials reported removing a 15-ton “bus-sized lump” of grease and wet wipes from city sewers.
Londoners called the lump “fatberg.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: