are wipes really flushable?

Are Flushable Wipes Actually Flushable? [2022 Update]

What was once relegated to infants and small children is becoming the craze among adults across the globe. Nothing more than glorified baby wipes, adults around the world are singing the praises of wet wipes.

Many brands label their wet wipes as “flushable”, but how true is this? The answer to the question of “Are flushable wipes actually flushable?” isn’t a simple yes or no. And getting to the, ahem, bottom of the question involves the ACCC, a legal battle and even touches on microplastics and their environmental impact.

Can You Flush Flushable Wipes Down the Toilet?

The marketing on the packaging might say “flushable toilet wipes”, indicating to you as a consumer that they’re safe to flush down your toilet. Your water service provider, however, probably has a different opinion.

According to Sydney Water, up to 75% of blockages involve wipes and they spend upwards of $8 million removing 500 tonnes of wet wipes every year. And this number is only growing!

Ever heard of a fatberg? Congealed masses of fats, grease and you guessed it, wet wipes are becoming an increasingly common problem in the wastewater system industry.

two fatbergs containing wet wipes from Queensland Urban Utilities
Two fatbergs containing wet wipes – provided by Queensland Urban Utilities

While machines can extract the bulk of the fatberg, workers still need to go in manually and remove what’s left over. This is the last thing workers in water services want to spend their day doing.

In light of all of this, we’d have to say that flushable wipes should not be flushed down the toilet. We recommend sticking to only flushing the “Three Ps”- pee, poo and (toilet) paper!

So if wastewater systems are struggling with the surge in the use of flushable products, why do we continue to label them as “flushable”? That’s exactly why the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched a legal case against a number of flushable wipe companies, including Kimberly Clark and their Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths.

ACCC in Federal Court

Back in December of 2016, the ACCC took Kimberly Clark to Federal Court alleging that the “flushable” label on their Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths was false and misleading.

Flash forward to June 2019, the Federal Court dismissed the ACCC’s case, ruling that there was not sufficient evidence to suggest that these wipes in particular were the cause of the blockages in the sewerage system.

The ACCC appealed the decision but this was also dismissed a year later on the grounds that the blame for these blockages cannot be pinned on one sole company.

So does this mean it’s safe to flush flushable wipes? Not necessarily.

Consumer advocacy group CHOICE conducted a survey to assess how Australians understand the term “flushable” in the case of sanitary bathroom products. Of the 1679 people surveyed, 67% said they would expect flushable wipes to disintegrate just like toilet paper does. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

So where is the confusion coming from?

What Does Flushable Mean?

The term “flushable” isn’t actually regulated by any third party and so there is no one meaning for the word. In fact, flushable wipe manufacturers themselves determine the criteria many companies use to measure flushability.

According to SBS, flushable means it will pass through your plumbing system and into the wastewater systems. While this is good news for your plumbing, it still has great potential to cause blockages in the wider sewer system.

This is why the ACCC and CHOICE are advocating for more regulations around the word “flushable”.

Why Flushable Wipes Aren’t Flushable

fatberg removed by Sydney Water containing wet wipes
Removing Fatberg containing wet wipes – provided by Sydney Water

When you flush toilet paper, the paper loses strength when it touches water, breaking down into small pieces. Broken down toilet paper has minimal risk attached to it.

While you might expect flushable wipes to decompose just like toilet paper and be safe for wastewater systems, this simply isn’t the case. Even paper towels don’t decompose as easily as standard toilet paper.

CHOICE ran a test where they placed different wipes and toilet paper into water and agitated it for 20 hours. The toilet paper completely disintegrated in under three minutes. None of the wipes broke up for the entire 20 hours.

This test really highlights the problem caused by flushable wipes.

While flushable wipes pose a bigger problem for the wastewater industry, you’re not exempt from the problems as a consumer. Sydney Water received a report from one woman who had a $16,000 plumbing bill after flushing these so-called “flushable” wipes!

What About Biodegradable Flushable Wipes?

What about flushable wipes labelled as biodegradable? Surely these will break up! The answer here is still no – you should not flush biodegradable wipes down the toilet.

The benefit of biodegradable wipes is that instead of throwing them in your regular bin to be taken to a landfill, you can compost them! Because they’re made of natural materials, they will break down over time and are safe in the environment.

That doesn’t mean they will break up easily when flushed down the toilet and still risk blocking your toilet or sewerage system.

Are Baby Wipes Flushable?

No, baby wipes are not flushable. Just like regular flushable wipes, they are designed to be durable. It makes it significantly easier to take care of your little one’s messes. This means they will no break down easily in your toilet. Essentially, you’ll be risking a blocked toilet and all the messes that come along with that.

Their Impact On the Environment

overflow of wet wipes reaches a creek
Overflow of wet wipes reaches a creek – provided by Sydney Water

What about flushable wipes and the environment? If they cause a blockage in the sewerage system, this can lead to it overflowing. Not only will the raw sewage escape into the environment, but the wipes will too.

This overflow has even reached the banks of our own water sources,  with people even finding wet wipes near creeks! We’re all familiar with the awful effects of rubbish on our marine life, but have you considered their contribution to microplastics?

Researchers understand that microplastics transport potentially harmful contaminants to marine life and are actively investigating methods to reduce them. A study in Ireland concluded that sanitary products, including wipes, are a bigger contributor to microplastics than previously thought.

The study tested marine sediments near wastewater treatment plants. Nearly all the microplastics found in these samples matched the fibres found in wipes and other sanitary products.

Worse yet, the researchers found that half of the flushable wipes they tested contained PET. This is a synthetic polymer often mixed with natural polymers, used for its good durability and strength. Strong and durable aren’t exactly the words you want to hear when describing something that should break down effortlessly in water. To be considered flushable, many think that only natural polymers such as cellulose should make up the wipe as these will break down more easily.

And About Those Non-Flushable Wipes

To make matters worse, many people flush non-flushable wipes! Manufacturers predominantly use PET to make these substances, which do not decompose easily. In fact, experts have traced most of the microplastics discovered to the use of these products.

This evidence highlights the need for increased public awareness regarding the correct disposal of all wipe types, and the adverse consequences of not doing so. Better yet, an independent party needs to regulate the term “flushable” to better reflect what actually happens when you flush it down the toilet.

How to Dispose of Flushable Wipes

There’s only one way to correctly dispose of flushable wipes – in the bin! The same goes for any kind of wet wipe, in fact.

Properly disposing of your wipes is the best way to prevent wipe-related blockages in your plumbing system and further down the line in the sewerage system. There’s also the reduced chance of them ending up in our environment where they can do even more damage.

National Flushability Standard

Mid-2022 could see the introduction of a national flushability standard here in Australia. Urban Utilities removes approximately 120 tonnes of wet wipes from its network every year. In a world-first, this standard aims to work with manufacturers and utilities to establish what you can and cannot flush down the toilet.

The standard outlines seven clear criteria to ensure a product’s flushability which will land it a pass or fail result. The major test is how well it disintegrates between your home and the first pump station it will meet – so around 30-60 minutes.

With nine weeks of public comment beginning now, finalisation of this national standard is almost complete. A spokesperson from Urban Utilities, Anna Hartley, had this to say, “Right now, consumers are being left in the dark without a national standard so it’ll mean shoppers will be able to make easier choices and do the right thing.”

How to Unclog Toilet Clogged with Flushable Wipes

If you do find yourself with a toilet clogged with flushable wipes, there are a few things you can do.

You can grab your plunger and plunge away at the blockage to dislodge it. While that might get rid of the wipe blockage for now, who knows how much might be building up in your pipes where you can’t see.

The best course of action is to book a professional plumber for CCTV drain inspection and hydro jet drain cleaning. Not only will this clear the wipe blockage, but it will also leave your pipes cleaner than before you started!

Metropolitan Plumbing is your blocked drain specialist and can even be at your door to clear a blockage within an hour*. Contact us for a speedy resolution to your blocked drains or toilet today!

Published: 2021-03-18

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