Flushable wipes constipating our sewer systems, officials claim

Steve Mertl

You may think flushable wet bum wipes are the greatest thing since indoor plumbing, or maybe just a new frontier of profit for the personal-hygiene industry. But your municipal government thinks they're a serious and costly problem.

While they might make you feel oh so fresh after a visit to the washroom, officials say the wipes are clogging municipal sewer systems and it's costing at least $250 million a year to clear the blockages, The Canadian Press reports.

Personal wipes have been around for a while, targeted mainly at women, but a recent TV ad campaign for Cottonelle wipes signals the industry is pushing to broaden use of the product.

The commercials feature a perky young woman with an English accent asking men and women "how do you like to wipe your bum?"

These ads creep my out almost as much as the toilet paper-challenged bears but I guess anything is welcome if it reduces those embarrassing underwear skid marks, huh.

The Associated Press reported in September that wipes are a US$6-billion industry annually and sales have been increasing by five per cent a year since 2007, with growth expected to accelerate over the next few years.

[ Related: Facts and figures about flushable cleansing wipes ]

But the potential increase in the number of wipes being flushed is a pain in the butt for those who are supposed to keep our sewage systems from getting constipated. They say the wipes are not disintegrating completely in the waste stream as manufacturers claim they do.

Instead, they get caught up in the machinery of sewage-treatment plants or build up with other material to clog pipes.

The Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (whose acronym MESUG sounds a little like something you might flush), representing 25 Canadian municipalities, wants Ottawa to create a new federal standard spelling out to consumers what products are not safe to flush, CP reported.

The list is growing, from wipes, to disposable toilet-cleaning sponges, tampon applicators and even some types of multi-ply toilet paper, CP said.

"If we don't deal with this problem, the Canadian taxpayer will be literally flushing away millions," said MESUG's Barry Orr.

"It's not a sexy topic -- it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. People expect to flush things down the toilet and then don't want to think about it anymore. But for me, this is every-day life, and we have to get this information out to the public."

The Cottonelle wipes web site FAQs say manufacturer Kimberley-Clark tests flushability in accordance with trade association guidelines.

"These guideline tests demonstrate that when used as directed, our wipes clear properly maintained toilets, drainlines, sewers and pumps, and are compatible with on-site septic and municipal treatment," it says.

"Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths are flushable due to patented technology that allows them to lose strength and break up when moving through the system after flushing."

But the guidelines are voluntary, Orr told CP, and said his group has been urging the industry to deal with the problem for the last two years without success.

Kimberley-Clark spokesman Eric Bruner denied that, saying it's working with waste-water administrators and also educating consumers about what's safe to put down the loo.

"But if we label something safe to flush, we stand by that," he told CP. "We put these products through a litany of industry tests. ... I certainly know our products perform well in lab tests and field tests to ensure flushability."

Bruner and others in the industry claim flushable bum wipes are being unjustly fingered as clog culprits. People are flushing clearly unflushable items, he said.

"They're finding things like paper towels, feminine hygiene products, diapers and baby wipes," said Bruner. "What we believe is that it's very important for consumers to read the labels."

But CP noted Consumer Reports tested a range of flushable wipes and found most wipes did not break down as claimed. The consumer watchdog recommends that if you must use them, wipes should be bagged and tossed into the trash.

Lord knows all manner of things seem to end up swirling around the bend, either accidentally or on purpose, as this post on DailyCognition demonstrates.

[ Related: 15-ton ‘fatberg’ found clogging London-area sewer ]

But clearly flushable wipes are a problem. Last summer, sewage workers in London removed a 15-tonne mass of congealed grease and wipes, dubbed the Fatberg, that had almost totally blocked from a 2.4-metre-diamater pipe, the Guardian reported.

Officials said they are becoming more common due to the rising use of wipes and the practice of restaurants dumping cooking fat down the drain.

"The wipes break down and collect on joints and then the fat congeals," Simon Evans of Thames Water told the Guardian. "Then more fat builds up. It's getting worse. More wet wipes are being used and flushed."

It took sewer workers with high-powered water jets three weeks to clear the giant stinking Fatberg from the line, said Evans.

How many little fatbergs are lurking in our sewer systems?