Regardless of what the Federal Court says, you shouldn’t put ‘flushable’ wipes down the loo


In the aftermath of a sewer overflow, “flushable” wipes are entangled in the vegetation.
Sydney Water Corporation

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

On Friday the Australian Federal Court found in favour of Kimberly-Clark’s “flushable wipes” in a legal action brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

There was insufficient evidence to convince Justice Gleeson that Kimberly-Clark’s wipes were primarily responsible for significant blockages and were therefore unsuitable for flushing down the toilet.

This was a very different outcome to a 2018 court case, also in the Federal Court, in which White King Flushable Wipes were fined A$700,000 for misleading claims.




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Don’t believe the label: ‘flushable wipes’ clog our sewers


The water industry has responded with disappointment to the latest ruling. Sydney Water claims 75% of sewer blockages involve wet wipes. Part of the problem is that, once flushed, wipes are anonymous and the blame for blockages cannot be laid at a specific company’s door.

This case highlights the need to determine what “flushable” really means. Does it mean you can physically flush it down a toilet? Or that it will biodegrade without major issue in the sewerage system, in the manner of toilet paper?

Flushable problems

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims explained that the commission pursued the case against Kimberly-Clark because of increasing reports from Australian water authorities of “non-suitable products being flushed down the toilet and contributing to blockages and other operational issues”.

Consumer groups such as Choice have also expressed concern about the impact of these products for years. Choice has produced a video that demonstrates how poorly some wipe products disperse in water, compared with toilet paper.

The water industry is frustrated with frequent sewer blockages, many of which are caused by materials people should not have flushed down the toilet. The industry slogan is that only the “three Ps” – pee, poo, and (toilet) paper – should be flushed down the toilet.

What is all the fuss about?

Blocked sewers are deeply unpleasant for everyone involved: professionals who have to unblock them, local residents, and the animals and plants that live nearby.

This is also linked to another chronic problem in sewers: fats. These mainly come from cooking fats and oils that coagulate in sewers. They have combined to create horrific “fatbergs”, often photographed with disgusted fascination.

‘Fatbergs’ are made when fats and oils coagulate in sewers, trapping other material – like so-called ‘flushable’ wipes.
Courtesy of Sydney Water

Much less common are the images showing the discharge of liquid sewage due to the blockages. In my previous career as a scientist in the water industry, I visited hundreds of such scenes.

They are smelly and unsightly, but of more concern is the public health hazard they pose. Raw sewage is dangerous due to its abundance of disease-causing organisms. Overflows can happen anywhere, often in very public places.

Sewers are underground, and often beside waterways. This means they might be blocked and leak raw sewage for weeks before it is noticed.

Tree roots and drought

Drought and trees are also contributing to the problem wipes pose. Currently much of southeastern Australia is in drought. Many trees in our cities are desperate for water, and their roots invade sewers.

Wipes and similar materials are readily entwined in tree roots. Wipes have a well-known tendency to become entangled and accumulate gradually to build a blockage.

Whose standard do you believe?

The industry body Water Services Australia is currently working on an Australian industry standard for testing “flushability”. This is expected later in the year.




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On the other hand, many wipes companies claim their products do break down when flushed – although Kleenex, for example, advises not flushing more than two wipes at a time. These wipes comply with an existing industry standard for “flushability”, although this standard was developed by two trade associations that represent wipe manufacturers.

The development and application of a comprehensive Australian standard is urgently needed to address this problem.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t believe the label: ‘flushable wipes’ clog our sewers



File 20180416 543 1hj7gns.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Don’t believe the wipe hype: they can’t be flushed down toilets, not matter what the label says.
SIM Central and South East Asia Follow/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The manufacturer of White King “flushable” wipes has been fined A$700,000 because these are not, in fact, flushable. The wipes, advertised as “just like toilet paper”, cannot disintegrate in the sewerage system, and cause major blockages.

The Federal Court found Pental Products and Pental Limited, which manufacture the wipes, guilty of making false and misleading representations. In particular, Pental claimed that the wipes would break down in the sewerage system, like toilet paper does.




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So-called flushable wipes, now sold for everything from make-up removal to luxury toilet paper, are a growing hazard to public health. Sydney Water says 75% of all sewer blockages in the city’s waste-water system involve wipes.

Don’t trust the label

While wipes might look a bit like toilet paper, there are major differences. Wipes are made from a very tough material called “air-laid paper”, and are often impregnated with cleansing chemicals, disinfectants and cosmetic scents.

Air-laid paper behaves very differently in sewers to toilet paper and does not readily disintegrate in water.

A CHOICE demonstration comparing wipes with toilet paper over 20 hours.

When in sewer pipes the resilient wipes have a tendency to entangle with other wipes and create blockages. This is a bit like the knot of tangled clothing sometimes found in the washing machine. Sewerage system managers around the globe seem powerless to prevent the problem.

Sewer blockages caused by wipes look grotesque. Unpleasant work in confined places is required to remove the blockages (some of which is done by hand!). In 2016 Newcastle’s Hunter Water removed an ugly seven-metre snake of wipes and assorted sewage debris, weighing roughly a tonne, from its sewers.

Wither do you wipe?

Wipes become very popular in the 1990s to help in cleaning babies’ bottoms while changing nappies. Since then, many similar products (“wet wipes”, “baby wipes” and “face wipes”) have proliferated well beyond the baby aisle.

Wipes may be advertised for personal hygiene, removing makeup and cleaning hands. Others are marketed for cleaning bathroom surfaces, toilets and other household areas. The marketing of wipes often boasts how easy they are to dispose by simply flushing them down the toilet.

More recently, a booming adult market is expanding their use as a luxury alternative to toilet paper, buoyed by endorsements from celebrities like Will Smith and Will.i.am. Research by Sydney Water found that males in the 15-44 bracket particularly preferred to use wipes rather than toilet paper. The same market survey estimated that a quarter of Sydney Water’s 4.6 million customers flush wipes down the toilet rather than putting them in a bin.

The three Ps

The fine imposed on Pental Products and Pental Limited for their “flushable” wipes is an important signal to others in this growing market.

However, wipes are not the only waste item that people should not flush down the toilet. This issue gained international notoriety in 2017 when Thames Water in London removed a 130-tonne monster sewer blockage, in a difficult and laborious three-week operation. The blockage was an accumulation of solids called a fatberg – a nightmarish combination of wipes, congealed fat, nappies, female sanitary products, and condoms.




Read more:
To fight the fatbergs we have to rethink how we treat sewage waste


Have we forgotten what toilets are for? The Australia Water Association reminds us that they are for the three Ps: pee, poo and paper (toilet paper only).

Perhaps people should visit an Irish website called think before you flush. It lists other common waste objects that should not be flushed, such as cigarette butts, cotton buds, dental floss, hair and unwanted medication. It also advises that a bin be placed in each bathroom.

The ConversationHopefully, packets of wipes will now carry warning labels to advise users not to flush them down the toilet. Just because you can flush something down the toilet does not mean it is good for the environment or society to do so.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.