Wet Wipe Bans Are Coming

Wet Wipe Bans Are Coming

Why Ban Wipes?  And What Can You Do If You Are Facing a Wet Wipe Ban?

Wet wipes have received increased scrutiny from governments and citizens.  Multiple U.S. cities have filed multi-million-dollar lawsuits against wet wipe manufacturers alleging that manufacturers falsely labeled their products as flushable.  Additionally, at least six U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have attempted to pass legislation to regulate the marketing of “flushable” wipes.  The Federal Trade Commission is also forcing wipe manufacturers to substantiate claims that their wipes are flushable.  

Recently, governments have begun to consider taking their fight against wipes one step further – by instituting wet wipe bans.

Why are wet wipe bans being considered?

Demand for wet wipes has increased dramatically over the last 10 years.  Unlike toilet paper, wipes were originally designed for durability to accomplish heavy duty tasks, such as wiping up messes and cleaning surfaces.  For this reason, wipes are typically composed of various nonwoven fabrics, such as polyester and polypropylene.  These fabrics do not break down easily.  

An experiment performed by Consumer Reports (watch the video, it is fascinating and helpful to understand the issue) indicated that even “flushable” wipes may not be so flushable: 

“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.”

The durability of wipes was originally not an issue because they were reserved exclusively for babies (and, therefore, intended to be thrown in the trash).  However, wipes are now being widely adopted by everyone – babies, kids, and adults - and, therefore, commonly flushed down the toilet. 

Though our rear ends may be better built for wet wipes, our plumbing, sewer systems, and water treatment facilities are not.  The damage that wet wipes cause led to their “award” as the “biggest villain” of 2015 by The Guardian.  And wipe demand has only grown since 2015.

Do we really know if wipes are causing problems after they are flushed?

Yes, the laundry list of cities and countries reporting issues is growing by the day.  The United Kingdom claims that wet wipes are behind 93% of its blockages or “fatbergs” (click here if you have not seen a fatberg).  Some of the most publicized instances of cloggings, fatbergs, and sewer damage on a global scale are:

(1) a fatberg the weight of a school bus found in the London sewer system,

(2) a 1,600 pound fatberg found in an Australian sewer system; and

(3) a fatberg the length of two soccer fields found in London (which subsequently became so famous that it inspired a musical and a museum exhibit).

Below is a short list of other areas that have reported issues:

  • 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.’”

As you can see, fatbergs are popping up across the globe.  Cities are being forced to fix damaged machinery, upgrade machinery, and dislodge fatbergs, and citizens are footing the bill.

Who is currently considering a wet wipe ban?

Most recently, the United Kingdom announced its plans to ban single-use plastic waste products.  This would include a wet wipe ban, which are commonly made with plastics.  Though not currently in effect, the UK announced its intentions to consider such a wet wipe ban.  The United Kingdom’s sewer system was developed long ago prior to the mass adoption of wet wipes and, therefore, is woefully unprepared for the buildup of wipes and resulting fatbergs.

Upon analyzing fatbergs, the UK determined that 93% of the fatbergs are made of wet wipes.  (In case you were curious, the remaining 7% of fatbergs are comprised of other materials, including feminine hygiene products, cotton pads, fats/grease, and plastic wrappers.)  By striking comparison, toilet paper only made up 0.01% of fatbergs – further proof that toilet paper biodegrades and wet wipes do not.

Not only that, but wet wipes have even spread to the UK’s natural bodies of water.  This year, 5,453 wet wipes were recovered from a portion of the Thames river embankment not bigger than half of a tennis court.  This was nearly 1,000 more wipes than were collected the previous year, further demonstrating the increasing demand for wipes.  Wet wipes are quite literally changing the shape of the UK’s riverbeds.

Private companies have followed suit in announcing wet wipe bans.  Tops Day Nurseries, who operates 20 nurseries in the UK, announced its own wet wipe ban in its nurseries.  Tops Day's Managing Director attributed their decision to institute a wet wipe ban to “the plastic in wipes killing marine life” and to the revelation that 93% of fatbergs are caused by wet wipes.  In lieu of baby wipes, Tops Day has opted to make their own baby wipes using a homemade recipe and paper towels.

In the wake of the UK’s wet wipe ban announcement, governments, organizations, and citizens of other countries began to question whether their governments should also consider wet wipe bans or regulations. The European Commission announced that it is proposing EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found in Europe's beaches and seas.  These rules would include obligations for wet wipe manufacturers to help raise awareness and cover the costs of waste management and clean up, as well as additional labeling requirements.  New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment indicated that they are also looking to reduce single-use plastics and would be following the UK’s initiatives closely.  Social media erupted with citizens in support of reducing or eliminating the use of wipes.

What can wipe users do if facing a wet wipe ban?

The wet wipe ban announcements have been met with mixed reviews.  Some support the strong action taken to improve the environment, while others are “furious” and feel that they are left without any alternative.

  1. Make Your Own Wipes: As Tops Day Nurseries chose to do, you can begin to make your own baby wipes.  Tops Day Nursery recommends a mixture of water, witch hazel, aloe vera, Castille soap, Vitamin E, and Olive oil.  There are other DIY formulas posted on the internet as well.  Typically, these formulas are then used with paper towels or cloth wipes.

  2. Use Pristine: Pristine is a wet wipe alternative in a spray bottle.  It is sprayed directly onto dry wipes, cloth wipes, paper towels, or toilet paper so that it functions like a wet wipe, but is actually flushable.  The advantages of Pristine over the DIY baby wipes are (1) Pristine is pre-mixed to save you time, (2) Pristine is properly preserved so that no mold or bacteria grows in your wipe mixture (this also means that you do not have to make new wipes ever 3-4 days as with DIY wipes), (3) Pristine is properly emulsified so that the oils and non-oils mix for an even, consistent feel.

  3. Use a Bidet: Self evident, but not helpful for parents.  While there are baby bidets on the market, they instruct parents to use water.  Water does not have cleansing agents, so a baby bidet using water would not actually “clean” your child.  You could pair a baby bidet with Pristine or DIY wipe formulas for a more effective clean.

  4. Lobby Wet Wipe Companies for Biodegradable Wipes: Many wipe companies currently market their wipes as biodegradable, but as we have explained in detail, even the wipes labeled as biodegradable do not necessarily biodegrade or avoid the creation of fatbergs in sewers.  The UK’s wet wipe ban initiative has focused on wet wipes made with plastics.  Though wipes could be made without plastics, this does not address the fundamental issue:  whether or not a wipe contains plastic, does the wipe break down after flushing?  The issue with wipes is that wipes must be durable enough to stay together after being pre-moistened, but not so durable that they stay intact after flushing.  The actually biodegradable wipe is the “holy grail” of the wet wipe industry that wet wipe companies are feverishly trying to invent.  It has not happened yet, but consumers demanding an alternative to wipes currently on the market will encourage continued research and development in the area.
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Ruth Witzki

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