Waste water operators in Europe and North America are facing an increased amount of solid waste being inappropriately flushed down toilets causing pipe and pump clogs in waste water systems. In concert, they have provided talking points to local media everywhere that the major culprit is the toileting wipe marketed as a “Flushable Wipe.” I’d like to correct the record and help the communities understand the real causes of sewer system clogs.
There are many kinds of wipes sold, but only a few (seven percent in North America; less in Europe) are toileting wipes marketed as “Flushable Wipes.” The larger volume wipes, such as baby wipes, disinfecting wipes, anti-bacterial wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, make-up removal wipes, and a cast of others, none of which are marketed as being flushable, are the real contributors to sewer system clogs. But only flushable wipes are being charged with causing clogs.
Flushable wipes are actually the solution to the aforementioned clogs, not the cause; it is actually these “other” wipes, led by the soft but oh-so-strong baby wipe, that are the real cause of unwanted accumulations in sewer systems.
Study after study of what exactly is in the accumulations of material on screens in sewer collection systems reveals a consistent result. Nearly half of the debris are paper towels, followed in volume by baby wipes, other non-flushable wipes and feminine hygiene products. Wipes marketed as flushable, or at least pieces of these wipes, are consistently less than eight percent of what is found, while baby wipes are intact and often wrapped around screens or pump impellers.
Flushable wipes are made from cellulosic materials, not the thermoplastics used in baby wipes and other cleaning wipes. Cellulose fibers sink, not float, so they reach the bottom of septic tanks and they stay at the bottom of aeration tanks, not rising and clogging the aerators. Flushable wipes are also engineered to do something cheaper baby wipes cannot do. That is, they travel wet in their container, yet have the strength to hold together during their intended function (but a low level of strength; even a toddler could rip them), then start to lose that strength immediately upon flushing, usually breaking into pieces during the transit in the conveyance piping, and completely disintegrating upon moving through the sewer treatment biological processes. Other wipes, when inappropriately flushed, stay intact, float, and stretch into “ropes” that can impair pumps.
Flushable wipes are actually the solution to sewer operator concerns, not the cause. If all wipes flushed were flushable wipes, then clogs on screens and in pumps would not occur (from wipes, at least). In fact, no flushable wipe has ever been established to be the causal factor for any problem in any sewer system. Wastewater operators in the city of Perry, Iowa learned this the hard way after hiring an attorney to sue the makers of flushable wipes, only to find that they could not establish any connection between their operating issues and the presence of wipes.
Furthermore, if consumer access to flushable wipes were to be compromised by misdirected legislative or regulatory efforts, consumers would use and flush more baby wipes, as their need for the cleanliness they seek cannot be legislated away.