GREAT BARRINGTON — You might not be able to control what people flush down the toilet, but you might be able to ban the sale of things that claim to be "flushable," but really just clog sewers and cost towns a fortune.
Town Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton Monday suggested an all-out sales ban in Great Barrington stores on what are labeled "flushable" wet-wipes, a paper product rued by sewer superintendents across the globe for clumping up and wearing out machinery. According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, wipes cost utilities in the U.S. up to $1 billion every year.
And every year in Great Barrington, wipe trouble and related overtime work costs the town $143,000, hiking up taxpayer bills.
Stanton said a ban wouldn't, of course, prevent people from buying wipes in other towns.
"But at least we're making a statement that you can't buy them in Great Barrington," he said, upping the ante from Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin's proposal of a bylaw that prohibits flushing anything but waste and toilet paper.
"It's hard to enforce, definitely," she said.
"I wouldn't bother putting it on the warrant," Stanton said. "You can't go into anyone's house [to enforce it]."
Stanton said such a bylaw would have no teeth, and would simply be "clogging up the bylaws."
Stanton wants an article for a local ban put on the annual town meeting warrant so voters can decide if they're willing to back such a law.
But Tabakin said she had looked into a ban, and that it isn't so simple. It would be an entry point into a larger legal battle and debate over what constitutes "flushability," and the ongoing fights between wipe manufacturers and cities with stressed or broken sewers.
Tabakin is still weighing whether the town should join a class-action suit, for instance.
With a bylaw, Tabakin said she was trying to keep the town out of this sticky morass. The town's attorney still needs to be consulted.
"I didn't really find a solid way to go that would prevent a [legal] dispute," she said. "This way we don't have to differentiate between flushable and non-flushable," she said. "Only toilet paper."
Stanton suggested Tabakin study the language of a Washington, D.C. labeling law that prompted a lawsuit by Kimberly-Clark Corp., manufacturer of paper products like Cottonelle. The city had enacted the law to force companies to label wipes "flushable" on the standard that they break down shortly after flushing. Wipes that didn't do this were to be labeled, "should not be flushed."
While a federal judge ruled against D.C., citing the First Amendment, his ruling only applies to Kimberly-Clark, and not other manufacturers.
Board member Ed Abrahams said even attempting a ban could at least raise awareness.
"I don't see a downside to making some noise about this," he said. "We might be ridiculed."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871