Are flushable wipes actually flushable?

Are flushable wipes actually flushable

Flushable wipes, as they are advertised, tend to highlight two key points. The first is the level of comfort that they can provide. This idea has been used for years as a key selling point for baby wipes. In fact, you might say that today’s adult wipes show that, like infants themselves, they have grown up and developed over the years!

The second promotional point – the term ‘flushable’ itself – has become quite problematic. As a simple definition tells us, the word suggests that the item is ‘suitable for disposal by flushing down a toilet’.

It’s easy then to assume that this suggests a process that includes the wipe breaking down and that sewerage systems are fully equipped to deal with them. Yet, if it were that easy, then there wouldn’t have been a protracted court case about this matter. We’ll return to it in much more detail later in this blog.

A matter of opinion

Taking the term at face value, it’s easy to assume that the meaning highlighted above is quite clear. Companies providing water services across Australia might offer an alternative view. The life of a flushable wipe does not end when you flush. The key question is how it then affects wastewater and how it is dealt with.

Sydney Water has revealed that up to 75% of blockages can involve such wipes. Homeowners who are mindful of costs may be alarmed to know that specialists believe an astonishing eight million dollars is spent in one year to deal with this problem.

The actual work involves removing around five hundred tonnes of flushable wet wipes in a single year. As things stand, this number is set to increase.

A considerable task

Another word that has come into our language over the last few years is ‘fatberg’. You might have seen fairly astonishing pictures of the ‘accidental sculptures’ of congealed waste! Water service workers have to deal with these. They know only too well that they are likely to find wet wipes as a constituent part of the fat blockage.

More about the term ‘flushable’

Like many words used to advertise and promote products, there is no regulatory definition to work with.

With ‘flushable’, we’ve mentioned an expectation that this means that the product would pass through your plumbing and into the wastewater system and that it would automatically degrade as it does so.

Toilet paper, for example, begins to lose its strength when it comes into contact with water. It is broken up, throughout its journey, into small pieces. These can then be safely and efficiently dealt with by the system.

For wipes, this process doesn’t happen. Comparison tests, which you’ll find on YouTube, such as this one from Durham Water in the US, quickly show the outcomes. When placed into water which is then agitated, toilet paper had disintegrated in a few minutes. A range of flushable wipes has been subjected to the same process for the best part of a full day. They still hadn’t broken up in this way!

It’s reasonable to suggest that the majority of Australians, would assume that the term ‘flushable’ meant that the wipes would disintegrate over time. This would mean that it would move through the system in much the same way as toilet paper does.

Not just a headache for water companies

As a consumer, you might think that the above is a problem just for the companies – but of course, it goes further than that. Overflows in sewerage system see waste, including wipes, escape into the surrounding environment. Sadly, flushable wipes have been turning up in the vicinity of creeks.

But, blockages or overflows can also be caused in home toilets, before ever making it into the main system. These problems can cost a substantial sum for homeowners to have them professionally solved.

We are focussing on wipes, but similar problems are often caused by the flushing away of other sanitary products and more. Examples that have lead to blockages and other problems include undigested food, nappies, and paper towels. You can add chewing gum, deceased pet fish, and even dental floss and cat litter! So, it pays to think before you flush anything away!

Flushable wipes and their relationship with microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces (less than 5mm) increasingly seen to be harmful to both oceans and the life they contain. Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic that have been added to a wide range of products.

Sanitary products, including flushable wipes, contribute to this build-up of microplastics. As a specific example, PET is a synthetic polymer used to add strength to natural ones. Wipes which contain PET are even more difficult to break down after flushing.

About that court case

We return to this, mentioned briefly earlier. With no clear definition of the term, almost five years ago, our ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) launched legal action against several flushable wipe producers.

Specifically, they challenged Kimberley Clark’s use of the word ‘flushable’ alleging the term to be false and misleading. This was found on the packaging of their Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths.

Almost four years later, the Federal Court dismissed the case. A key reason given for this decision was a lack of sufficient evidence to show that the wipes were the particular cause of blockages in the sewerage system.

An appeal by the ACCC later failed. The grounds given were that blame for such blockages could not be apportioned to a single company. You can find a detailed response from Sydney Water here.

If it happens to you – dealing with toilet clogging

Should flushable wipes cause a clogging problem in your toilet system, most people will reach for the plunger. Vigorous use of this implement might clear the immediate problem.

However, there is a strong possibility that the problem is actually shifted further into your system. Disappearance from plain sight sadly doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is solved.

It’s likely that it can be building up even more serious trouble for the future. This can lead to cracked pipes, including blockage or damage to the pipe which takes all your sewage to the mains. This can then affect all your individual drainage outlets.

Benefiting from swift and professional help

It’s easy to appreciate the distress and inconvenience caused by such blockages. As well as causing damage to your property, such blockages can be hazardous to health. They are also unpleasant in the extreme. If the use of a plunger – or indeed boiling water – hasn’t been effective, then a range of proven drain cleaning methods can come into play. The latest drain cleaning machinery is both powerful and effective; as is the professional use of high-pressure water jets.

How can we help?

Based in Oakleigh, we provide professional plumbing solutions throughout our Eastern Suburbs. Our Andrew J Robertson team are available 24/7 You can find out more about our Blocked Drain Sewerage Services here or you can quickly call us on 9017 5092.

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