Victory Against Wipes Manufacturers Retailers Benefits Wastewater Industry, Environment

Charleston Water System (CWS) settled its class action lawsuit against all remaining defendant wipe manufacturers and retailers. This ensures that nearly all flushable wipes available to consumers across the country will truly be flushable and that packaging for all non-flushable wipes will clearly indicate they should not be flushed.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina approved four settlements March 8, 2024, with the final six defendants in the CWS suit including Costco, CVS, Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and Procter & Gamble. Kimberly-Clark, which manufactures Cottonelle Flushable Wipes, as well as non-flushable wipe products previously settled with CWS and its products already comply with the suit’s requirements.

Flushability timeline:

Walmart                   3/8/24                   (Immediately, upon settlement approval.)
Costco, CVS, Walgreens 4/1/24
Target                      12/1/24
Proctor & Gamble18 months after court issues judgment and the time for appeals has run.

Labeling timeline:

Walmart                                18 months after court issues judgment and the time for appeals has run.
Costco, CVS, Target             4/11/25
Walgreens  4/26/25
Proctor & Gamble Immediately for nationwide compliance with California labeling law.
18 months after court issues judgment and the time for appeals has run for additional two-panel baby wipe labeling.

“When we filed this suit, only one brand of wipes were actually flushable and no product packaging offered disposal instructions that were clearly visible,” said Mark Cline, CEO at CWS. “We’ve won a very significant battle, as wipes have been public enemy number one for the entire wastewater industry since they were invented.” 

CWS brought suit in January 2021 against major U.S. companies seeking injunctive relief to remedy costly and ongoing damage to sewer systems and treatment facilities due in significant part to the inability of allegedly “flushable” wipes to break down, often clogging wastewater infrastructure and causing sewer overflows that damage the environment. 

Cline added, “We knew this litigation would be tough and that the stakes were high for these international corporations, so we’re extremely pleased with the skilled work of our counsel. These settlements bring significant benefits to wastewater utilities nationwide and their customers, while reinforcing these company’s commitments to being good corporate and environmental stewards. It’s a major step forward for us and the whole country in that respect.”

The settlements commit the defendants to meet an international flushability standard supported by the wastewater industry, with two years of confirmatory performance testing, and significant non-flushable wipes labeling enhancements. The relief parallels similar benefits secured by CWS in a first-of-its-kind settlement with Kimberly-Clark approved by Judge Gergel in January 2022. Together, these settlements cover products representing an outsized share of the flushable wipes market and will help reduce the accumulation of wipes in sewage systems, the expenses incurred to address wipes-related clogs, and the time-consuming and costly preventive measures necessary to mitigate future clogging.

Cline also stated, “The final battle in the wastewater industry’s war against wipes is still to come and that involves changing human behavior. We hope consumers will follow the clear instructions on the packaging. If so, customer sewer costs would go down and the vast majority of sewer overflows nationwide would be eliminated, making our environment the big winner.”

In addition to the relief to wastewater system operators, the settlements will provide economic benefits to rate payers, benefits to consumers in the form of product improvements and enhanced labeling, and benefits to the public by reducing the likelihood of residential plumbing clogs. The settlements also help further the global adoption of uniform flushability standards. CWS consultants have confirmed that industry participants in several countries are investing in developing products that meet the International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG) flushability standards – the same standards (specifically, the PAS 3 disintegration test) defendants have agreed to meet. The defendants’ commitments are further elevating those testing parameters as the international standard for flushability.

At a hearing held March 8, 2024, Judge Gergel applauded CWS for its injunctive relief approach to the litigation, stating, “I, frankly, commend the plaintiff on taking the path that had the greatest societal impact.” 

Robbins Geller attorneys Samuel H. Rudman, Vincent M. Serra, and Francis P. Karam led the litigation team, along with co-class counsel AquaLaw, on behalf of the plaintiff, CWS.

“This was a mission-critical case for our client. And we knew that various, similar cases brought on behalf of sewage treatment plant operators seeking similar relief were dismissed. To secure the nationwide injunctive relief that we obtained here is an exceptional outcome, both for our client and for the class. I really want to tip my hat to our team and our client for their persistence and patience in obtaining this result,” said Sam Rudman, counsel for CWS.

Commissioners of Public Works of the City of Charleston (d.b.a. Charleston Water System) v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, CVS Health Corporation, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, The Procter & Gamble Company, Target Corporation, Walgreens Co. and Wal-Mart, Inc., Case No. 2:21-CV-00042.

Source: Charleston Water System

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