Dry, tough toilet paper can take a toll on sensitive skin, which is why many people prefer the soft feeling of a wipe to get the job done. With the relatively recent introduction of flushable wipes to the market, people have been able to supplement toilet paper use with flushable wipes or even completely switch from toilet paper to flushable wipes. However, despite the claim in the product title, flushable wipes may not actually be suitable for residential or municipal plumbing systems.
How Can Flushable Wipes Be Harmful If They Are Labeled as Flushable?
One of the main reasons flushable wipes seem like a great option to have around the house is because the term flushable is included in the product name. This simple addition makes people feel comfortable about dropping these wipes into the toilet when they would typically avoid disposing of standard cleaning wipes in the same way. The problem with this is that there isn't an industry-regulated criterion to determine what does or doesn't make a wipe flushable. Instead, flushable wipe manufacturers have come up with their own loose, in-house criteria to separate flushable wipes from standard wipes.
Without proper regulations to determine the viability of the claim, there is no way to know for sure whether a flushable wipe will be able to pass through a home plumbing system, and even if the wipe does flow out of the home, it can cause problems in the larger municipal wastewater management system. In other words, some flushable wipes may not actually be flushable.
To test whether flushable wipes are truly flushable, Ryerson University gathered 101 products, including 23 wipes that were labeled as flushable. They conducted a series of tests to determine whether any of these products would actually fall apart or disperse safely through the sewer system and found that not a single flushable wipe product passed the tests. These findings clearly indicate that a rigorous testing process needs to be implemented before a manufacturer can make the claim that their product is flushable in order to help protect the local infrastructure and homeowners' plumbing systems.
What Does Flushable Really Mean?
The term flushable simply means that the material is suitable for disposal by flushing it down a toilet. However, suitability can be difficult for the average person to determine, so it's best to compare the differences between how flushable wipes and toilet paper act within a plumbing system to get a clear distinction between products that are designed for convenience and those that are truly flushable.
Toilet paper is designed to lose strength when it comes into contact with water, causing it to break down into small pieces and rapidly disintegrate within minutes. On the other hand, flushable wipes consistently remain in one piece as they pass through the residential plumbing system and out into the municipal wastewater system. This inability to efficiently break down can cause clogs in the home plumbing system and lead to greater issues in the municipal system, where flushable wipes bind with other debris, forming massive clogs, causing overflow, and reducing the flow and filtration capabilities of the wastewater system.
In fact, a study conducted in Ireland even found that 50 percent of flushable wipes contained PET, which is a synthetic polymer that actually slows the breakdown process. Flushable wipes and standard wipes are also primary contributors to the ongoing problem of microplastic buildup in the waterways and oceans.
What Can Be Safely Flushed?
Flushing something down the toilet seems like a great way to get rid of it, but a hasty decision about what can or cannot be flushed may result in a clogged plumbing system and a hefty repair bill.
With flushable wipes posing a risk to residential and municipal plumbing systems, as well as the hazardous effects of microplastics on marine life, it's clear that flushable wipes shouldn't be disposed of by flushing them down a toilet. Other common products that people should avoid flushing down toilets include paper towels, feminine sanitary products, family planning products, cooking grease, and household waste, like paint.
To help prevent clogs and further damage to the system of the home, it's imperative to understand that bodily wastes and toilet paper are the only suitable substances for disposal by flushing them down a toilet. Also, keep in mind that flushable wipes are not recyclable, so they must be thrown into the trash bin for proper disposal.
Defining 'Flushability' for Sewer Use. Ryerson University.
Ó Briain, Oisín et al. The role of wet wipes and sanitary towels as a source of white microplastic fibres in the marine environment. Water research vol. 182 (2020): 116021. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2020.116021