Flushable wipes

Why you shouldn’t put flushable wipes down your pipes.

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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.

Demonstration video

As an aside to our test, we put 2 flushable wipes, regular toilet paper, and one non-flushable wipe in an agitator for 20 hours. Here’s what we found.


Send a message

Use our sample letter to write to manufacturers and ask them to stop labelling these wipes as “flushable”.

Dear manufacturer of flushable wipes

I’m writing to you because I want you to stop marketing and selling so-called “flushable” wipes.

Consumer NZ recently tested 11 different flushable wipes and regular toilet paper to see how they break down. Within minutes the toilet paper started to disintegrate. But even after 70 minutes the wipes were still intact.

Claims these wipes “disintegrate like toilet paper” are costing consumers money: these wipes don’t break down like toilet paper and are causing plumbing headaches for households and local councils.

I’m asking you to do the right thing for consumers and the environment. Please drop the claims these wipes are “flushable”.

Email contacts

Up to standard?

Up to standard?

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Up to standard?

In 2008, EDANA, the international association that represents wipe manufacturers and related industries, together with its North American counterpart INDA, developed voluntary guidelines for assessing the flushability of wipes – also known as non-woven consumer products.

Now in their third edition, the guidelines set out requirements products should meet before making a flushable claim. The latest edition also recommends a “do not flush” logo be put on non-flushable wipes. But this doesn’t solve the problem we found in our test – flushable wipes did not break down like toilet paper.

Got a problem?

Got a problem?

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Got a problem?

The Consumer Advice Line is available to all our members for support on any consumer-related issue. Our expert advisers can explain your rights and help you resolve problems with a retailer.

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Member comments

Get access to comment

Dale S.
15 Apr 2018
What's a better alternative?

In a house full of young children and a few adults who like the 'fresh feeling' a wipe can give, what is a hygienic alternative to flushing the used wipe down the toilet? Leaving them in a closed rubbish bin seems logical but may become odorous. Is there a household chemical that could be added to stop the odour and breakdown the wipe so that it could be flushed?

Consumer staff
16 Apr 2018
Re: What's a better alternative?

Hi Dale,

We aren’t aware of any household chemical that could break down the wipes to make them safe to flush, and we recommend consumers never flush so-called “flushable” wipes. Your best option is a closed bin and to limit the smell you could try a scented liner (they are available for nappy bins), but they aren’t a cheap option.

Cheers,
Belinda - Consumer NZ writer

John R.
04 Jul 2016
And what about your nice, warm fleece

No response from Nick to my last post so I don't expect any action on fleeces either. Micro fibres from your fleecy jacket are the biggest source of plastics contamination in the gut of fish and seabirds too. Sooner or later, these fibres end up in our guts also. Have a look at https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/27/toxic-plastic-synthetic-microscopic-oceans-microbeads-microfibers-food-chain. As a "Consumer" I need this sort of information to help me decide whether or not to buy from those big, chain, outdoor-clothing stores.

John R.
07 Jun 2016
What about facial scrubs?

Not just flushable wipes but what about the facial scrubs that are currently popular and well advertised, as well as baby bath bubbles? These things contain, in one bottle, MILLIONS of tiny plastic beads that wind up ... where? Well, in the gut of fish, obviously. Have a look at http://europe.newsweek.com/united-states-just-banned-microbeads-those-tiny-plastic-disasters-your-face-410617?rm=eu

Any chance of Nick Smith acting some time soon?

Laraine B.
13 Feb 2016
I'd be very happy to email these manufacturers

if I only knew who they are! I don't use flushable wipes. I use Ajax Spray'n'wipe multipurpose wipes, but the manufacturer doesn't claim they are flushable, and they certainly don't look flushable.

Mrs Jenny
23 Jan 2016
Flushable wipes and toilet paper containing bamboo fibre

Am so pleased Comsumer have surveyed this! I have used flushable wipes, and also toilet paper with bamboo. Both clogged my sewer drain and my neighbour's as we share the pipe at a Y connection. It happened twice and my recollection was it cost us more than $200!
Yes, 'flushable' wipes are convenient - but I will not be buying any more.
I have found that the toilet paper labeled 'containing bamboo fibre' has a similar effect on the drains too so that is also no longer on my shopping list.
Thanks too for the info on where viscose and rayon come from.
Jenny

Douglas S S.
22 May 2016
Bamboo fibre

Bamboo fibre is essentially rayon. I regard the marketing of rayon products as environmentally friendly rayon as a con. And of course being an artificial plastic product the fibres themselves take forever to break down unlike the natural cellulose in toilet paper. To say nothing of the extreme chemical environments and water use required to turn bamboo-sourced cellulose into rayon.