The label claims they’re “flushable” but our test of 11 flushable wipes found these products don’t break down readily and could end up causing a plumbing headache. They’re also leading to costly problems at wastewater treatment plants.

Marketing of flushable wipes has seen sales of these products grow steadily. And if international figures are anything to go by, the trend is set to continue. A UK market research company estimated the global flushable wipes market will increase 12 percent a year to reach US$2.4 billion by 2018.

But the products have been attracting flak because of the plumbing problems they cause. As our test shows, these wipes don’t break down like toilet paper.

Our test

We put 11 flushable wipes and regular toilet paper to the test using an agitation device designed to replicate the wastewater system. Each wipe was put in the agitator for 70 minutes.

Within minutes, toilet paper started to break down and had disintegrated after 70 minutes. However, all the flushable wipes in the agitator were still intact, apart from the occasional small tear.

In 2013, US consumer organisation Consumer Reports did a similar test. It put four flushable wipes in a benchtop mixer filled with water and it took at least 10 minutes for each wipe to break into small pieces.

Then there’s the cost. Compared with regular toilet paper flushable wipes aren’t cheap. We paid between $5 for a 42 pack and $5.99 for a 40 pack – that’s about 12-15¢ per wipe.

Problems

An article published in Water New Zealand’s journal Water says wipes are clogging drains and sewers and resulting in unnecessary plumbing bills.

Peter Whitehouse, Water New Zealand manager of advocacy and learning, says water authorities here and in Australia have reported problems largely attributed to flushable wipes not breaking down and their tendency to snag. Blocked pump stations, clogged wet wells and sewer overflows are the result.

A collection of debris, including wipes, at a wastewater treatment plant.
A collection of debris, including wipes, at a wastewater treatment plant.

Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs says his council has seen a significant increase in blockages in its wastewater system this year, a problem it links to the growing use of flushable wipes. The wipes and other debris have to be collected at the treatment plant and disposed of in a special landfill. “[We] estimate maintenance, disposal costs and staff time for debris disposal and response to blockages is costing over $500,000 per year,” he says.

Water New Zealand also points to the negative impact these wipes are having in other countries. In 2013, a 15-tonne sewer blockage was found in London. The “fatberg” could fill a double-decker bus and was a mix of flushed food fat and wet wipes.

Across the ditch, it’s estimated wet wipes have already cost Australian water services A$25 million to manage blockages and develop new infrastructure to cope with the increasing use of wipes.

Water New Zealand believes the products shouldn’t be called “flushable” because they don’t break down in the waste system.

Richard Briggs agrees. He says just because a product is labelled “flushable” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for a city’s wastewater system, or that it will break down in the time it takes to travel from a private home to a treatment plant. Hamilton City Council has launched a “Bin It, Don’t Flush It” campaign to drive home the message, he says.

It’s not just water treatment plants affected by flushable wipes. A member told us they used flushable wipes in their motorhome’s toilet. He found they didn’t break up so had to be taken out by hand. Earlier this year, television programme Fair Go reported a woman had to call in the plumber after flushable wipes blocked waste pipes. According to her plumber 40 to 50 percent of his call-outs involved problems caused by a build-up of wipes.

Manufacturer claims

Kimberly-Clark, makers of Kleenex Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths, says the product is biodegradable and meets voluntary industry guidelines for assessing the flushability of non-woven products. However, it says sewerage systems and stream flow conditions differ from house-to-house and recommends “no more than two wipes to be flushed at any one time”.

Asaleo Care, makers of Sorbent Flushable Wipes, says its products have been “scientifically and independently tested to support the claims that they are flushable, dispersible and biodegradable”. The company says its flushable wipes will “pass through well-maintained domestic sewerage and septic systems without causing blockages”. And herein lies a problem.

Master Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers NZ chief executive Greg Wallace says the testing he’s aware of has been done using new PVC pipes in a lab environment, which is not reflective of most New Zealand pipes.

“Flushable wipes may not be such an issue in new suburbs which have PVC pipes but the majority of New Zealand homes have old earthenware or clay pipes. These are highly susceptible to ground movement and tree roots and these imperfections mean the wipes grab and stick and may cause a blockage,” Greg says. Unblocking a drain can cost a homeowner about $200.

He believes the only type of wipe to flush is regular toilet paper.

Water New Zealand is also critical of the voluntary industry guidelines used to assess flushability claims. They don’t address the issue of wipes snagging in sewers, says Peter Whitehouse.

The New Zealand Food & Grocery Council, which represents manufacturers, has a working group looking into flushable wipes. While the council says its members can substantiate product claims, some are reviewing the information on their packaging to make sure it’s as clear as possible.

We say

  • Don’t flush any wipes down the pipes. Our test found even wipes claiming to be flushable did not disintegrate like toilet paper.
  • In our view, manufacturers shouldn’t be claiming these products are “flushable” when they may not break down in real world conditions.

Report by Belinda Castles.