Which one of these products is okay to flush: paper towels, baby wipes, feminine hygiene products or cleaning wipes?
It’s a trick question because the answer is none of the above! In fact the vast majority of wipe products we buy and use on an everyday basis are not designed to be flushed – although they unfortunately still find their way into sewer systems.
So let’s break down what is okay and why
While it may be obvious that toilet paper is okay to flush, many may not realize that wipes marketed as “flushable” also cause no reason for concern and there is a huge difference in how they are made and processed as compared to the other products mentioned above. So how do we know flushable wipes are okay to flush?
Just this week, the wipes industry introduced Edition Four of the Guidelines for Assessing the Flushability of Disposable Nonwoven Products. With enhancements to its already stringent test criteria, the Guidelines will continue to ensure that products labeled “flushable” are compatible with plumbing, septic systems and municipal sewer systems. Only products that pass seven rigorous tests may be marketed as flushable.
Flushable wipes are engineered to safely pass through household pipes and local sewer systems, and are compatible with wastewater systems. Homeowners with septic systems can also dispose of flushable wipes, since flushable wipes will settle and degrade biologically in septic tanks. Flushable wipes hold together during use, weaken after flushing and ultimately become unrecognizable – sparing our wastewater infrastructure from the impacts that can occur from flushing non-flushable products.
Why does what we flush matter?
While it may seem like a minor offense, the reality is that many of us have flushed a non-flushable product at some point in our lives. A recent New York City study revealed that 98 percent of what was collected at a wastewater treatment plant were non-flushable items, including baby wipes, paper towels, tampons, pads, cleaning wipes and other miscellaneous trash that remain strong after flushing, and thus, can clog our wastewater systems.
What can you do to help?
Educate yourself and those around you to make smarter choices when it comes to the products you flush and also the products you buy. If you’re not sure about whether you can flush a wipe, read the label – only nonwoven wipe products labeled “flushable” that have passed INDA/EDANA guidelines are okay for flushing. You can also make the small commitment to buy products labeled as “flushable” and remove that uncertainly altogether. For example, some parents have found that flushable wipes are more convenient than baby wipes when it comes to potty training.
We can be part of the solution to clogged pipes. Ultimately, we must remain committed to raising awareness of this burden on the wastewater system we depend on every day. More people making informed decisions will keep our homes and communities’ plumbing systems running smoothly.
By Dave Rousse
I’d like to present a case for the unfairly maligned flushable wipe. As a converted wipes enthusiast, I voluntarily represent the flushable variety, which are designed to break down and sink once they enter wastewater systems.
The true culprits in our pumps and pipes are not flushable wipes, but instead their non-flushable counterparts – baby wipes, disinfecting wipes, anti-bacterial wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, make-up removal wipes, and a cast of others – that some consumers are flushing anyway.
Numerous studies, most notably a 2012 collection study in Maine, have shown that nearly half of the debris that creates unwanted accumulation in wastewater systems are baby wipes, non-flushable paper (such as away from home paper hand towels), other non-flushable wipes and feminine hygiene products. In fact, a 2016 study by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection showed less than 2 percent of pieces of wipes found in accumulations could be identified as those labeled flushable. In comparison, baby wipes are found intact, usually stretched into ropes and often wrapped around screens or pump impellers.
Unlike other disposable wipes, our flushable friends aren’t the root causes of “Fatbergs.” In fact, they all undergo a flushability assessment involving seven must-pass tests that ensure any wipes marketed as “flushable” are compatible with wastewater systems. Yet despite the fact that flushable wipes haven’t caused the problems in wastewater systems, they stand trial in the media. They are declared the causes of pump clogs, Fatbergs and other wastewater problems.
The court of public opinion should value facts, not unsubstantiated claims. In courts of law, facts won out when the city of Perry, Iowa, sued the makers of flushable wipes over issues with wastewater operations. When it became clear there wasn’t a shred of evidence linking flushable wipes to operating problems, the case was withdrawn and a speedy settlement reached.
I suggest the responsible use of flushable wipes – and disposing of non-flushable wipes in the trash - is actually the solution. I invite all of you to be secure and proud to use flushable wipes with confidence that you are helping, not hurting, the wastewater infrastructure.
Dave Rousse is President of INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry