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Is It OK to Flush Those Wet Wipes?

Baby Wipes

Story at-a-glance -

  • After going through the wastewater treatment process, many “flushable” wipes emerge largely intact and almost as new
  • Flushable wipes are leading to overflows and sewage backups, and they’re getting caught in pumps and other equipment
  • In the last five years alone, New York City has spent more than $18 million to deal with wipe-related equipment problems

By Dr. Mercola

Wet wipes have long been popular with parents of babies and infants, but they’re now in vogue with a new market – adults using them in place of toilet paper. Part of the allure is that some moist wipes claim to be “flushable,” making them convenient for bathroom use.

From 2008 to 2013, sales of moist flushable wipes grew 23 percent to reach $367 million, according to Bloomberg News.1 But the industry is now in hot water with environmental groups and municipalities across the US, which say the wipes may clear the toilet but cause serious problems down the line.

Many Flushable Wipes Don’t Break Down

Flushable wipes are often deemed to be “flushable” if they pass an industry trial known as the “slosh box test.” This test involves rocking wipes back and forth in water to see how quickly they disintegrate.

However, according to Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, in the New York Times, “[The test is] a lot more turbulent than the flow that you find in a wastewater pipe.”2

In other words, even after going through the wastewater treatment process, many wipes emerge largely intact and “almost as new.”3 In one Consumer Reports test, a sheet of toilet paper dissolved in swirling water after about eight seconds, but a flushable wipe was still intact after half an hour.4

There is no legal requirement for a product to be labeled flushable, and as a result the wipes are clogging up pipes, leading to overflows and sewage backups, and they’re getting caught in pumps and other equipment.

In the last five years alone, New York City has spent more than $18 million to deal with wipe-related equipment problems. According to the New York Times:5

The volume of materials extracted from screening machines at the city’s wastewater treatment plants has more than doubled since 2008, an increase attributed largely to the wipes.”

A City Council bill introduced in February 2015 would prohibit advertising certain wet wipes as flushable, and a public awareness campaign has been started to raise awareness about the proper way to dispose of wipes – in the trash.

The Fatberg That Threatened London

This isn’t only a matter of so-called flushable wipes not breaking down, as only a small percentage are marketed as flushable. The rest of the wipes clogging up wastewater treatment plants are there because people flushed wipes inappropriately. What can happen when masses of these wipes collect in one place?

They can combine with cooking grease and other debris to form massive “fatbergs,” as one 15-ton blob blocking London’s sewers in 2013 was dubbed. The fatberg, which was the size of a city bus, reduced the city’s sewer to just 5 percent of its normal capacity.6

Officials said raw sewage may have soon started spurting out of manholes if the problem wasn’t discovered. Repairs took six weeks. As New York Magazine reported:7

“‘The wipes break down and collect on joints and then the fat congeals,’ explained a representative from Thames Water to the Guardian. ‘Then more fat builds up. It’s getting worse. More wet wipes are being used and flushed.’”

‘No Wipes Down the Pipes’

In addition to New York, Hawaii, Alaska, California, and Wisconsin have also been plagued by wet wipes. Beloit, Wisconsin, for instance, has launched a “no wipes down the pipes” campaign. Unless it’s toilet paper, the municipality says, it should not be flushed. According to the city:8

Wipes, cloths, and rags are being found in sanitary sewers at an ever increasing rate. Many of these products are labeled as flushable, but while they may clear the toilet, they will most likely cause problems downstream. These products are becoming notorious for blocking private sewer laterals, public sewer mains, and binding up municipal pumps.

Items that specifically list the term flushable (but should NOT be flushed) include diapers and diaper liners, baby wipes, pre-moistened wipes, a wide variety of bathroom cleaning wipes and brushes, feminine hygiene products, toilet seat covers, doggy doo-doo bags, and cat litter.

Other products have been found to clog pipes and pumps after being flushed include Q-tips, dental floss, paper towels, and rags. Instead, please place these items in a trash can.”

Last year, a class-action lawsuit was even filed against flushable wipe makers by a New York resident who claimed the wipes caused major plumbing issues in his home. More than 100 people joined the suit, which is seeking at least $5 million in damages.9

Why Toilet Paper Isn’t the Best Solution Either

Toilet paper may be safe for city sewers, but it poses different environmental risks. Americans use close to 8 million tons of toilet paper every year,10 and forests are being destroyed to keep up with this demand. As reported by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):11

“Giant paper producers are forcing the destruction of our continent's most vibrant forests, and devastating the habitat for countless wildlife species in the process.

Instead of making better use of materials such as post-consumer recycled fiber and agricultural residue to meet the escalating demand for toilet paper, paper towels and other disposable tissue products, these companies buy virgin pulp from suppliers that reach deep into North American forests for timber, from northern Canada to the southeastern United States.”

If every US household replaced even one roll of virgin fiber toilet paper with one made from 100% recycled fibers, 423,900 trees would be saved.12 You can also opt to choose toilet paper sourced from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

However, even toilet paper that comes from specially planted tree plantations is not a sustainable choice in the long run, as these single-species plantations cannot compare with the species-rich forests that have formed a natural habitat for centuries.

Aside from the waste, the process of bleaching toilet paper white leads to the creation of cancer-causing chemicals like dioxins and furans, which not only enter the air but also waterways, soil, and the food chain. Exposure to even low levels of dioxins has been linked to hormone alterations, immune system impairments, reduced fertility, birth defects, and other reproductive problems.

Replace Toilet Paper and Flushable Wipes with a Bidet

If you like the idea of wet wipes but not the idea of causing environmental problems and damage to wastewater treatment facilities, the bidet is an excellent alternative. For those who aren’t familiar with how they work, a bidet looks similar to a toilet but it is designed to help you freshen up after toilet use. Most modern bidets have one or more jets that spray water, allowing you to straddle the device for a cleansing far superior to toilet paper.

In fact, the word “bidet” comes from the French stout pony by the same name. It got its name because sitting astride a bidet is very similar to the position you would take if riding the small horse.

Today, there are also bidet seats (which you can put atop a regular toilet) and bidet toilets, which are like a toilet and a bidet in one (a wand under the seat sprays water).

Bidets are easy to use, hygienic, gentle on your skin and good for the environment… so it’s no wonder that, according to Kohler, which is the largest manufacturer of bidets in the US, they’re growing in popularity.13

If you have arthritis or are unsteady on your feet (which means you may have a difficult time showering regularly or even twisting to wipe properly on a toilet), a bidet can provide excellent personal hygiene. There is also a theory that using a bidet may help prevent urinary tract infections due to better cleansing, and this is another reason why they're becoming popular among older populations. 

However, most people I know who’ve tried one (of all ages) love it and only wish they’d gotten one sooner.While you can spend upwards of $4,500 on a “luxury” bidet, it likely won’t get you any cleaner than a simple bidet kit that you could install right on your existing toilet (with no need for a plumber) for under $100. That’s what I did in my own home and now that I’ve tried it, I wouldn’t want to be without one.