flushable wipes

Are Flushable Wipes Actually Flushable?

What was once relegated to infants and small children is becoming all 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 this isn’t a simple yes or no, unfortunately, and 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”, 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 use of flushable products, why are these wipes labelled “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 Conttonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths.

ACCC in Federal Court

Back in December of 2016, the ACCC took Kimberly Clark to Federal Court alleging that their “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 wipes. Of the 1679 people surveyed, 67% said they would expect flushable wipes to disintegrate just like toilet paper does which 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, the criteria many companies use to measure flushability is designed by flushable wipe manufacturers themselves.

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 will lose strength when in contact with water and break down into small pieces. Broken down toilet paper has minimal risk attached to it.

While you might expect flushable wipes to lose strength and break down just like toilet paper and be safe for wastewater and plumbing systems, this simply isn’t the case.

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!

Flushable Wipes and Microplastics

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

To make matters worse, when the sewerage system becomes blocked, they can overflow. This means all the sewage waste and wipes escape into our environment.

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

A study in Ireland concluded that sanitary products, including wipes, are a bigger contributor to microplastics than previously thought. Microplastics are known to carry potentially harmful contaminants to our marine life and so there is ongoing research on how we can reduce them.

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 50% of the flushable wipes they tested contained PET. To be considered flushable, many think that only natural polymers such as cellulose should make up the wipe.

PET is a synthetic polymer that is great for adding strength when mixed with natural polymers such as cellulose. While great in other applications, this means the wipes will have an even greater struggle breaking up once flushed.

To make matters worse, many people flush non-flushable wipes! These are predominantly made with PET and so don’t readily break down. In fact, most of the microplastics found were attributed to non-flushable wipes.

This all goes to show that there needs to be greater public awareness about proper disposal of wipes – both flushable and non-flushable – and the negative downstream effects if this isn’t followed. Better yet, the term “flushable” should be regulated by an independent party to better reflect what actually happens when you flush it down the toilet.

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 get a professional plumber out for CCTV drain inspection and hydro jet drain cleaning. Not only will this clear the wipe blockage, 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 toilet today!

Published: 18 Mar, 2021

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