You’ve probably seen the commercials for flushable wipes, and you may even be curious about the benefits of using them. What you may not know is that these so-called flushable wipes are actually one of the leading causes of clogs in municipal sewer systems—and they’re actually at the center of an ongoing scientific debate! In this blog post, we’ll discuss what flushable wipes are, why they’re causing clogs, and how to properly dispose of them.
What Constitutes as a Flushable Wipe?
So, what exactly is a flushable wipe? This seemingly simple question actually has a relatively complex answer. According to marketing, a flushable wipe is any wipe advertised with the word “flushable” in front of it—as there is no set standard for what should and shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet!
A flushable wipe may disintegrate by as much as 95% when put into contact with water, but most brands are usually closer to around 60% disintegration. While this is great for the flushable wipes companies (as there’s no regulation on what they are able to advertise), this is not so great for plumbers, wastewater workers, and other homeowners impacted by clogged sewer and septic systems.
In fact, some flushable wipe manufacturers have endeavored to create their own system for determining a wipe’s “flushability,” creating a guideline for “Assessing the Flushability of Disposable Nonwoven Products,” referred to as “GD4” for short. Many of these flushable wipe manufacturers have banded together to create the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), which challenges the International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG) on what should or shouldn’t be flushed down a toilet.
Members of the INDA feel that the IWSFG’s ideas of what can be flushed down the toilet are limited, and their wipes, which can pass the GD4, are not the wipes causing problems. This has caused some manufacturers to point the finger at baby wipes instead.
What's the Difference Between a Flushable Wipe and a Baby Wipe?
While “flushability” research varies in degrees from brand to brand, it is generally agreed upon that baby wipes should not be used like flushable wipes, as they remain intact in plumbing and sewer systems. Though flushable wipes have been marketed for use in a toilet (with questionable accuracy), baby wipes make no such claim to their “flushability.”
Can I Flush Flushable Wipes Down the Toilet?
You may be wondering if there are certain brands that were better than others at disintegrating, whether from the INDA’s perspective or that of IWSFG. This fundamental question fueled a study hosted by Ryerson University which tested over 100 single-use hygiene products, 23 of which had been marketed as “flushable.” This study found that none of the tested hygiene products—even those deemed “flushable”—would disperse or disintegrate when exposed to sewer-like conditions. While manufacturers under INDA are quick to point out that there were flaws with this study, most plumbers and municipal city workers would be likely to tell you not to flush the “flushable” wipe down the toilet.
What Is a Fatberg?
Flushed hygiene wipes can lead to more than just clogs in your home plumbing. While it might seem like a victimless crime to flush your disposable wipe down the toilet, the reality is it’s creating a big, nasty job for somebody else down the line…in the form of “fatbergs.”
A “fatberg” (stemming from “fat” and “iceberg”) is the tongue-in-cheek name for a big problem: fat and other flushed trash accumulating, coagulating, and blocking the sewage system. Even cooking fat, when poured down the sink, can combine with flushable wipes, feminine hygiene products, and other human waste to form a giant clog in the artery of the sewer system.
This problem is not only unsavory to confront, but it is costly as well. In fact, the City of London recently broke apart a fatberg weighing an astonishing 130 tons! This is equal to the mass of more than 10 double-decker buses. For more information on the London fatberg, click here!
However, London is not the only major city that has had to deal with a costly fatberg. New York and Detroit have also had to take measures to break up their own coagulated, fatty sludge. What’s more, the IWSFG estimates that the United States spends between $500 million to $1 billion dealing with fatbergs and other “unclogging” projects around the country.
What Can I Flush Down the Toilet?
While it can be tempting to dispose of anything small down the toilet, this problem is not “out of sight, out of mind” for municipal sewer workers and even local plumbers who correct the issue. Most sources agree it is generally best if you stick to flushing the Four P’s down the toilet:
· And toilet paper
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In spite of the millions of dollars the United States alone spends on fatbergs every year, and in spite of the limited “flushability” research from Ryerson University, the “flushable” wipe doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, with the industry expecting to reach $22 billion in sales by 2023. While there’s no harm in preferring a wipe to regular toilet paper, most industry experts agree the “flushable” wipe should go in the trash, not the toilet bowl!