Are Wipes Flushable? What does "flushable" even mean, and should I care?

Are wet wipes and baby wipes flushable?  Short Answer:

  • Not really.  Wipes may flush down your toilet, but they can lead to clogs/damage in your house, in the city sewers, or in the water treatment facilities.
  • Toilet paper is made to degrade when flushed, but wipes do not have the same material characteristics.
  • Cities across the world have been spending millions of dollars and even filing lawsuits to remedy problems caused by wipes. That means that your tax dollars could be directly related to flushing of wet wipes.
  • There are alternatives, such as toilet paper spray, that afford the comforts of wipe without the clogged pipes.

 

Comfort and convenience are often primary motivators for making a decision. Many of us drive to avoid the inconvenience or discomfort that could potentially come with having to walk. Convenience is also the reason some choose to eat fast food as opposed to cooking at home - it is easier and less time consuming to go down the street to the nearest fast food chain than it is to labor in the kitchen.

Comfort and convenience influence almost every decision we make - even when it comes to our bathroom habits.

Both comfort and convenience play a role in the decision to use wipes vs toilet paper.  Toilet paper is more convenient because, well, it’s everywhere! However, comfort has many Americans opting for a more hygienic bathroom experience with wet wipes, as some surveys indicate that wet wipes are climbing in popularity, particularly among millennials.

So, you might be asking, why does any of this matter?  The increased comfort that wet wipes provide may come at a cost.  Wet wipes were initially made for babies and were anticipated to be thrown in the trash, not flushed down the toilet.  The drastically increasing use of wet wipes around the world has led to more wet wipes being flushed down the toilet.  Which leads us to a very important question: Are wipes flushable?  Can wipes be discarded in the way that they often are:  down the toilet?  A quick google search will show many people asking this same question. In order to get to the bottom of this question, we have extensively researched the topic and can report the following:

Are wipes flushable? Well, first, what does “flushable” mean?

Are wipes flushable? First you have to ask what does the term “flushable” even mean?  The short answer is that there is currently no legal or regulatory definition for what is “flushable.”  However, it is clear based on some reports that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other international bodies have at least indicated what is not flushable:  many of the wet wipes on the market.  The FTC has taken aim at some wipes manufacturers for incorrectly labeling wet wipes as flushable.  So, we can at least say that the FTC and other governing bodies believe certain wet wipes are not “flushable.”  But this still does not define what it means to be flushable in order to answer the question “are wipes flushable.”

In common vernacular, the term “flushable” can mean several different things.  It could indicate the ability of a toilet, upon flushing, to remove an item (e.g., wipes) from your toilet bowl, without any focus on what happens downstream beyond the physical toilet bowl itself.  Under this interpretation, wipes are “flushable” because, when you flush the toilet, barring an extraordinary movement, the wipes will typically no longer remain in your toilet.

However, the above interpretation appears to be inconsistent with the FTC and other governing bodies definition because, otherwise, there would be no issue.  A narrower interpretation of the word flushable, which appears to be the way that the term is being construed by governmental bodies, refers to an item’s (e.g., wipes) ability to be flushed down the toilet without causing any meaningful issues with any components downstream of your physical toilet, whether it be your own plumbing, your neighborhood’s plumbing, the city’s sewer systems, or the water treatment facilities’ machinery.  In other words, in this narrower and more widely accepted use of the term “flushable,” an item, such as wipes or toilet paper, must avoid any meaningful issues for the entirety of its life cycle, beyond disappearance from your porcelain bowl.

Toilet Paper: Why is it “flushable”?

The flushability of toilet paper harkens back to its inception.  The history of toilet paper is a rather interesting one and drove the original pioneers of toilet paper to make it “flushable” in the narrower sense of the word. Flushing toilets were not always a part of our lives. Before the invention of the flushing toilet, and in the era of outhouses and holes in the ground, people used either corncobs or catalogs to clean up after taking care of business (yeah, that actually happened *shutters in agony*).  In fact, there was even a hole punched in the corner of the Old Farmer’s Almanac so that it could be hung on a hook in the outhouse.

Even before that, the Romans used a sponge on the end of a long stick, which was shared by everyone (*shudders in agony again*).

Others were even encouraged to use mussel shells.  It wasn’t until the 1800’s that flushable toilets were made a regular part of our lives. After the invention of the at-home flushing toilet, however, people realized that any attempt to flush a corncob down the pipes would be in vein (yup, not happening)! So, in the 1890’s, toilet paper was introduced to the Americas - a safe, flushable alternative to corncobs, catalogs, sponges-attached-to-sticks, and any other previous go-to wiping method.

Toilet Paper: What makes it flushable?

What ensures that something is “flushable” under a broad or a narrow interpretation of the term?  In order for something to be flushable, it must either (1) be small enough initially or (2) must dissolve into small enough pieces when it comes in contact with water such that it avoids any issues downstream.  Toilet paper is “flushable” under the narrow interpretation of the word because it dissolves into small enough pieces once in contact with water (or after a short time of being in contact with water) to largely avoid any issues downstream of your toilet.

Unlike other products, toilet paper breaks down and dissolves easily when exposed to water. This is primarily caused by the material toilet paper is made of: trees.

Toilet paper is generally one of two types: virgin or recycled. As the name might reveal, the term virgin paper means that the paper has come straight from the tree and has never been used. According to madehow.com, the manufacturing process for virgin toilet paper can be broken down into 10 steps, including stripping trees of bark, cutting the trees into wood chips, creating a pulp, bleaching the pulp, and pressing it to drain water and flatten the pulp (if you’d like to read more about these steps, please see “The Manufacturing Process” section of madehow.com’s article).

The process of making recycled toilet paper does not begin with cutting down trees.  Don’t worry, you are not re-using toilet paper that has already been used – used toilet paper has already dissolved because it is “flushable.”  Instead, you are using other forms of recycled paper, such as the kind that you may find in a recycle bin.  Rather than beginning with cutting down trees, toilet paper that has been recycled takes both white and stock paper that has been thrown away, removes any pens and staples that are in the paper, and then puts it into a pulper- a huge machine that turns the old paper into a liquid slush by combining it with hot water and detergents. The paper then goes through various screens that remove any ink that may be present on the paper. Once this process is done, the recycled paper is turned into toilet paper through similar steps to the virgin paper.

Wipes: What makes some wipes NOT flushable?

Compared to toilet paper, wipes are relatively young. Although certain brands of wet wipes emerged in the 1970’s, wipes did not become widely available in stores until the early 90’s. Their rising popularity is due to several factors, including that they enable people to have better hygiene than dry paper, they are easy to use, and they generally provide a more comfortable post-restroom feel.

While it’s true that wipes are a great way to practice better hygiene, they aren’t ideal for being flushed down the toilet. Unlike toilet paper, wipes are not specifically designed to break down and dissolve in bathroom water. In fact, wet wipes were labeled the biggest villain of 2015 by The Guardian. Why are they so villainous, you may ask?

Unlike toilet paper, wipes are designed to be durable enough for heavy duty tasks such as wiping up messes, cleaning surfaces, and (yes) that kind of duty too. In order to accomplish this task, wipes are typically composed of various nonwoven fabrics such as polyester, polypropylene, viscose pulp, and cotton.

While these nonwoven fabrics help to yield a durable product, they do not break down very easily when exposed to water. In fact, an experiment performed by Consumer Reports (watch the video, it is fascinating and very helpful to understand the issue!) indicated that even “flushable” wipes may not be as compatible with sewage systems as many people would like to think:

“When we put [the wet wipes] in a stand mixer filled with water and pushed the slowest speed (more churning than your waste pipe will provide), it took at least 10 minutes to break each into small pieces. That means you may not want to flush ‘flushable’ wipes.”

As you can see, toilet paper was created to counteract the issues with clogging that we see today. Because it is degradable, it does not clog any pipes, which means it allows for the sewage system to do its job. Wipes, on the other hand, were not initially created with flushing in mind, and now, as an afterthought, companies are struggling to find ways to deal with flushability issues.

Do we really know if wipes are actually harming our Sewage Systems?

Yes. Let’s look at New York for example. According to an article written by The Commissioner’s Corner, the use of wet wipes in New York doubled back in 2008.  The article also indicated that wipes show up in the sewage system intact, which can cause clogging and damage to essential sewage system equipment.

This article suggests that wipes are directly contributing to the cost of maintaining city plumbing:

“In addition, there is a cost associated with removing the additional material to landfills. Since companies began marketing these wipes as flushable, DEP’s shipping and landfill costs have increased by as much as $3 million each year.”

This fact alone suggests that wipes are a significant contributor to the problem of clogging in our sewage systems.

The clogging of sewage systems isn’t just occurring in New York- it’s happening everywhere.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of articles and important quotes to highlight issues everywhere:

  • Canada: Canadian taxpayers are reported to be paying at least $250 million per year in order to repair any damages that wipes cause to their sewage system.
  • Miami, Florida: “Miami-Dade County’s sewer department launched a campaign [] against “flushable wipes,” joining a national effort to keep the popular products out of the toilet. ‘It’s hard to believe the kind of problems that these things are creating,” said county sewage chief Lester Sola. “There are some pump stations where we have to go almost on a daily basis to solve these issues.”
  • The Bay Area: “Wipes aren't just clogging sewage systems in San Francisco, but all over the Bay Area and you're paying the bill. In San Jose, officials say wipes stuck in the sewage system cost ratepayers up to $1 million a year and that's just one city.”
  • Washington, D.C.: “For instance, in Washington, D.C., where municipal pipes are old and small, flushed wipes can build up and create blockages as soon as they enter the sewer system, says Hiram Tanner, pumping manager at the District of Columbia Water & Sewer Authority. ‘We have to send someone out to clear out the sewers.’ Wipes that pass through pipes can get hung up in the city’s wastewater equipment. ‘We have to clean the pumps out and repair them,’ Tanner says. And those that make it past the pumps get caught in screens that city employees clean with pitchforks."
  • New York City: “In New York City, the Department of Environmental Protection has spent more than $18 million over the past five to six years to remove the wipes from its facilities, according to Deputy Commissioner Vincent Sapienza.”
  • Wyoming, Minnesota: “Last month, the city of Wyoming Minn.[] filed a federal class-action lawsuit against six makers of pre-moistened flushable wipes for alleged harm to their infrastructure. Brought on behalf of cities grappling with similar problems, the lawsuit seeks $5 million and a declaration from the court that the wipes advertised as flushable are not safe for sewer systems.”
  • Orange County, California: “Orange County in California spent $2.4 million in the past five years on new equipment to deal with the wipes. It also spent more than $300,000 in one year to unclog pumps.”
  • Columbus, Georgia: “Columbus, Georgia spent $550,000 in the last two years on new grinding equipment and spends $250,000 a year extra on costs related to wipes.”
  • Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver, Washington spent $1.5 million from 2008 to 2013 on new pumps, additional labor to unclog other pumps and extra electricity for pumps due to the wipes.”
  • Raleigh, N.C.: “In Raleigh, N.C., the biggest sources of sewer overflows and backups are rags and debris, mostly flushable wipes, says Marti Gibson, the city's environmental coordinator for wastewater. A Raleigh ordinance prohibits flushing anything except human waste, toilet paper and water, Gibson says.”
  • San Antonio, Texas: “‘Those so-called 'flushables' like cleansing wipes and feminine hygiene products won't clog your toilet if you're lucky,’ said Anne Hayden, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio Water System. ‘But, they will cause major damage to your sewer system, and they may contribute to sewage backing into your home or office.’”
  • The City of Dallas has even started a campaign against flushing wipes down the drain known as Defend Your Drains.

The problem of wipes clogging sewage systems is a very real one. It is not occurring in isolated cities, but across the nation and, in fact, across the world.   For example, some of the most publicized instances of clogging on a global scale, at least in part due to wipes are:

(1) a clog the weight of a school bus removed from the London sewer system, and

 

(2) an over 1,600 pound clog removed from an Australian sewer system.

 

A lot of are labeled "flushable." Can we trust them?

The answer to this question, unfortunately, is that there is no way to be sure without testing the product’s degrade-ability. As mentioned above, Consumer Reports performed one degrade-ability test on wipes vs toilet paper. Without testing a wipe for degrade-ability (or learning about a wipe’s degrade-ability from a reliable source), it is difficult to tell whether a wipe manufacturer’s definition of “flushable” is the broad definition (that flushes down your toilet, but wreaks havoc downstream) or the narrow definition (that is safe throughout its life cycle). The moral of the story is this: Do your research and don’t always trust what the labels tell you.

So, are wipes flushable? Now, that we know the answer is “not necessarily,” what other options do we have?

Alternatives to Wet Wipes

Educate yourself by utilizing campaigns such as Defend Your Drains in Dallas. The less often we flush these wipes down the toilet, the fewer problems we’ll experience with the clogging of sewage systems across the world. This, of course, means that you’ll have to dispose the wipes you use on yourself in the trash can (yuck!).

Ideally, it would be best to just stop flushing wipes after we visit “The Oval Office.” But, because comfort encourages many to use wet wipes for a refreshed backside, there a couple of alternative solutions.

One of these alternatives to wet wipes is Pristine's eco-friendly spray that is used to moisten toilet paper, giving it the ability to function like a wet wipe.  You can watch the spray in action here.  This alternative to wet wipes provides the comforts of wet wipes because it is works to cleanse and moisturize after restroom use, but it also provides the degrade-ability of toilet paper because it is used with actual toilet paper.

We will dedicate a future post to the advantages of these alternative markets.  However, for now, it is at least necessary to acknowledge that they exist, and that they provide a hygienic alternative to wet wipes, without all of the chemicals and clogged pipes.

 


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