The Truth Behind Flushable Wipes

Flushable Wipes

Flushable Wipes Convenience or Catastrophe?

Since there is no governmental regulation about what the term ‘flushable’ really means, how is a consumer to know if a so-called flushable wipe is really safe? After all, flushable could simply mean that it is able to be flushed. If that’s the case, most sets of car keys are technically flushable. Ask any parent of a 2 year old! The best way to find out if wipes are really able to be broken down after being flushed is to look at the utilities that are responsible for treating the water that comes into their plants after it’s flushed along with these wipes.

Most wastewater treatment plants struggle to treat the water that comes in when flushable wipes have been used. According to the claims of the manufacturers, most of the wipes begin the process of breaking down within 30-60 minutes of being flushed, but they require agitation to do so. The problem is, in the sewers, the only agitation is the water flowing through the pipes. There is not anything that’s going to churn the water enough to really get these fabrics to break down. In a septic tank, there is even less agitation, meaning that a good number of the wipes never break down completely.

This process leaves these wipes coating some of the pipes that they are trying to be flushed through, and that leads to clogged pipes and even less breakdown of the wipe itself. The more of these wipes that come into the collection system, the more the wastewater treatment plants struggle to get the water clean without getting their machinery clogged up with wipes. The cost of keeping the machines free of these wipes is growing along with the flushable product industry. The more consumers are using these wipes, the higher the costs are going to be to get wastewater treated, which will eventually trickle down to the consumers with higher water utility costs.

  • So… not that I’m an expert and this is simply my first thought after reading this article… but why not come up with some sort of cleaner or liquid that could be flushed once a week that will aid in the break-down of the wipes…? Would that be possible? Speaking as the parent of a 2 year old, I do use many wipes and do flush some of these.

    • Hi Heather,

      When items are flushed they don’t hang around in your local system unless your system is plugged. They are swept away through miles of pipes to the treatment plant. Depending on your proximity to the plant, this could be minutes to hours. The impact that the wipes may have could affect other homeowners and communities with the system by causing sewer backups or release of sewage through manholes overflowing. Our systems are meant to deal with toilet paper and human waste. The toilet is not a garbage can. Tampons and other commonly flushed products including wipes, tissues, paper towels, floss, hair and condoms cannot be broken down and therefore cause system failures.

      From an environmental stand point – adding more chemicals to dissolve these products would add to the cost of the treatment processes to remove the chemicals from the water before it can be returned to the environment, and further burden an already taxed system.

      Hope that helps and thank you for the feedback.

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this to me.
        I didn’t think of the long range issues this could cause, from a young age we’re told to just flush certain items without thought of what could happen.
        I will definitely think twice now.

  • cfurlan

    Why not install industrial agitators between the pipes and before the sewage enters the treatment process?

    • We should really look at the basis on which these claims are being made by the manufacturers. Even if introducing additional agitation helps to break down these products, in my opinion, nothing other than the toilet paper and human waste should be flushed.

      You are now suggesting more cost to utilities to operate and maintain these industrial agitators. Remember, anything flushed down the toilet (whether breakable or not) takes away sewer and other infrastructure capacity and increases maintenance burden on sewers and all downstream equipment and processes.

      Also, note that the first step in any advanced wastewater treatment plant is screening and all items, including wipes, bigger than the screen size will be removed and sent to the landfill, so why not send them to the landfill to begin with.