Why someone in Toronto thinks reusable wipes could be bad for the environment

In an Op-Ed piece from the Toronto Star, the vice-chair of Toronto Public Health, Sunayana Dissanayake, refutes criticisms of a letter to the editor in the Ottawa Citizen, which suggested that reusable wipes could interfere with sewage treatment plants. The Montreal Gazette also ran a retraction regarding a similar column in December.

“Provincial and municipal governments and health agencies should be wary of masking local perceptions with exaggerated and speculative government concerns,” writes Dissanayake. “Fears about the impacts of reusable wipes on sewers and the environment shouldn’t obscure scientific evidence,” she says, and describes these concerns as being “out of sync with scientific analysis of the causes of sewage overflows.” The piece is titled “Why should we listen to the Wash Grannies?”

Dissanayake has previously been outspoken about the effects of reusable wipes on the environment, and in November she suggested that reusable wipes would cause a catastrophe in Canada’s Great Lakes region. “We will eventually reach a point where certain urban centers will have the effluence of refilled wipes landing on our shorelines,” she said.

Her letter in the Star claims that she “moved cautiously to air some environmental concerns at the behest of the municipal and provincial governments,” by taking the long view on the topic. Dissanayake alleges that, in the near future, other forms of personal care products may become problematic.

Dissanayake identifies reusable wipes as a “significant contributor to overall usage of our sewerage systems,” and highlights a 2017 study that found that half of sanitary wipes are disposed of improperly, and that their specific composition—such as fibres in the synthetic fiber—can “confuse” water treatment technology and “lead to overflows,” as the Riverkeeper network of groups observed. “More conservative” toilet paper and paper towels can survive the system’s “non-absorbent” labels, but Dissanayake said. She also wrote in the Star that consumer education efforts will be needed to promote proper use of these products.

Though the article acknowledges that flushable wipes are not a major cause of sewer overflows, Dissanayake claims they are “responsible for greater than half of all sewage overflows in Toronto, with 20 to 30 per cent of these secondary and tertiary overflows from shelters,” and highlights a continued study of these wipes that will be coming out in the coming months. A conclusion from this study could be what leads to the professional group’s decision to move away from advertising wipes as these need to be flushed down the drain, she said.

Dissanayake would not specify the source of the Vancouver Wash Grannies’ criticism, but her letter acknowledges that the omissions of information she points out in their piece are many. “As the vice-chair of Toronto Public Health, in the Health Promotion department, I am free to do advocacy for public health, and that is precisely what I did,” she said. Dissanayake explains that she “always tries to be as factually accurate as possible without misleading the reader.”

Questions aside, the OLA letter in the Citizen argues that the mayor and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency “rushed into a decision not supported by scientific analysis.” The Gazette article similarly cites a “full dossier of available study by researchers and government agencies,” and Dissanayake lists them here. In addition, she included a petition from the Torino Convention Center, in response to the letter that will also “provide much-needed information about what wipes are being used, and where,” she said.

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