Are Wet Wipes Really Flushable?

Most of us take our plumbing system for granted, particularly our waste water line. “Flushed and forgotten” is the common mindset. It only becomes a problem when we get backed up plumbing with a sewage back up. When that happens, it’s an immediate concern that demands our attention and often results in an emergency call to the plumber.

For this reason, many homeowners know the basic ABC’s of what to flush and what to throw out in the garbage. But let’s face it: getting rid of things that can be flushed is so much easier as long as the products are safe for your waste system. Household product marketing companies are well aware of our desire to be able to simply get rid of things once used. With the help of marketing, we have become a consumer culture of disposable products. This has become a huge problem as landfills expand and garbage finds its way into our oceans.

Enter the “biodegradable” disposable to solve the problem. It seems right. Throw or flush something away and it simply disappears into easily absorbed ingredients nature can recycle. The problem is, for the most part, they don’t.

Misleading Marketing Cripples Cities

Mislabeling, poor R & D from the manufacturers and a lack of understanding of plumbing systems have created staggering problems of the wastewater industry and has actually crippled cities like London and New York with massive blockages.

In 2013, the London’s Kingston area sewer lines were crippled by a highly toxic 15-ton “fatberg” the size of a city bus that blocked a sewer pipe over nine feet wide. This massive clog was composed of solidified grease and oil, but experts claimed that flushable wipes were a major contributing factor. It took a team of men three weeks to break down this clog. The city considered them heroes! Wastewater experts in London report that they have to clear 40,000 blockages a year due to fat and wipes being put down the drain.

What you perhaps haven’t heard is that the so-called “flushable” wet wipes have been creating massive, expensive clogs in city pipes and sewer machinery in most major cities for years. New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney, London – to name a few—consider disposable wipes to be a scourge that has sparked multiple lawsuits and legislation to combat.

What’s Wrong With Wet Wipes?
  • Their flushable characteristics have not been adequately researched before being released to a market demanding flush-and-begone wipes. A wet wipe, by definition, must hold its strength when wet. Therefore, it biodegrades slowly and will often bind other waste together in the line long before it dissolves – if in fact it does. When it combines with other materials, it may lose its ability to biodegrade.
  • Sewer line pipes have imperfections both in surfaces and joints that can cause wet wipes to hang up like items in a stream will collect together and gather other debris that eventually causes the stream to flood over its banks.
  • As disposable wipes began to be used by adults in the bathroom, there was a consumer reluctance to place the wipes in anything other than the toilet. With babies, there was a disposable diaper pail available into which the nappies and the wipes could go. From this grew the demand for flushable wet wipes – even if for the most part, the “flushable” feature is overstated.
  • Wipes stuck in the home sewer line eventually require professional declogging with a snake. This sends the problem further down the line to the municipal sewer line where it aggregates with other households.
  • With growing populations and environmental concerns, water rationing means less water is driving the waste down the line. This means more wipes that can hang up in the line can be left to clog the system.
  • No one is perfect. Sometimes we put things down our drains that we shouldn’t. For example, a little grease or oil from a skillet. Running hot water to help it down only works to clear the immediate area, but the grease/oil quickly cools down and solidifies. Wet wipes already in the system that have not yet dissolved are magnets for this material and will rapidly create masses that grow into blockages. Dental floss seems innocent enough, but easily contributes to clumping waste. The same with too much toilet paper in one flush or accidentals like cotton swabs and sanitary pads. Each on their own can create problems, but flushed wipes often accelerate the problem.
  • Label confusion. There are many wet wipes on the market and research indicates consumer confusion about which ones are flushable. Because “flushable” is in such high demand, many non-flushable products do not clearly state that they shouldn’t be thrown down the toilet. Even when legislation demands it, some manufacturers do not make these notices prominent. This is called “underlabeling” and it is a problem for consumers. Studies have also found that the general term “wipes” creates further confusion, tending to make the product appear to be as toilet safe as toilet paper.
  • False labeling. Some companies have been fined for falsely claiming their products are flushable when they are not.
  • The flushable characteristic of wipes is that they are not woven material and therefore should break apart rapidly. Right? Not always. Many wipes are designed to hold up beyond their use as a toilet paper substitute. They are used for cleaning and disinfecting. But to do this, they are built thicker and stronger and as a consequence they hold up even in the sewer line. Yes, eventually they break apart, but they are more likely to gather into clogs long before then.
  • Your waste system is unique. How often members of your household flush and the materials that are flushed vary greatly. Other variables include the length of your sewer line, the condition of the pipes and any lateral bends in the line. Age of the system is also a factor. A manufacturer’s wet wipe research can never account for the different uses each of us put our plumbing system through.

So, are wet wipes really flushable? The safe answer is no. Why risk the inconvenience of a major clog and the need for plumbing repair. Benjamin Franklin Plumbing will always be there for you in any emergency or proactive inspection, but we also look forward to teaming up with you for more enjoyable projects like aesthetic kitchen and bathroom upgrades.