Around the mid-2000’s, wet wipes began to gain popularity in Europe and America as an alternative to toilet paper. It’s easy to understand why these wipes make you feel cleaner since no one wants to have to shower every time they go to the restroom.
The label “flushable” on most of these products has made their popularity possible, as people would obviously have a strong aversion to placing such an intimate item in the bathroom trash can. It turns out; there’s a price to be paid and a hefty one at that.
These so-called “flushable” wipes have led to a significant scourge on residential and municipal sewer systems around the world, not to mention expensive toilet repair and drain cleaning in your home.
The fact is that most of these wipes are too thick and too sturdy for most septic systems. Unlike toilet paper, they also take too long to biodegrade.
If you’re using wipes at home, you could easily create a clog that turns into a blockage. The next thing you know you’re desperately calling plumbers to pay a few hundred bucks to get your drain cleaned and snaked. But the more major problem and one that impacts us all is how these wipes affect our municipal systems.
Since it’s not something that comes up in a day to day conversation, most people don’t know about how clogs, and the notorious fatbergs, affect our municipal sewer systems.
Now for the truly disgusting part: Since these wipes do not break down, they tend to cling to fats such as grease and other food by-products found in sewer systems, forming what is known as a “fatberg.”
A fatberg consists of fat, grease and waste, most commonly wet wipes as they are widely used and do not break down easily. Fatbergs will continue to grow in a city’s sewer system until the entire system becomes clogged. They are particularly troublesome when the city’s septic system is already under stress, as is common in many large cities.
Famous fatbergs include:
• August 6, 2013: A fatberg consisting of fat from food and wet wipes was discovered in drains in Kingston upon Thames. This fatberg was roughly the size of a bus.
• September 1, 2014: A fatberg the size of a Boeing 747 airplane made out of waste, fat, wet wipes, food and tennis balls was discovered in West London.
• September 3, 2014: The sewage system of Melbourne, Australia was clogged by a mass of fat, grease and waste.
• April 2015: A 40-meter long fatberg was removed from underneath Chelsea. The fatberg had caused some £400,000 to repair over a two-month period.
• January 2016: Blockage from a fatberg was discovered near Newcastle in Australia. This fatberg weighed about a ton and took four hours to remove by crane.
It’s clear that should wet wipes continue to become more and more popular among home consumers; the fatberg problem will only increase. Wet wipe popularity will not only affect and inconvenience many homeowners but put a heavy strain on the resources and finances of municipal septic systems.
It’s not just fatbergs that are the problem. New York City, home to the largest US sewer system, has spent more than $18 million in the past five years alone replacing sewer plant pumps, gears, valves and screens that have become clogged by wet wipes.
Similar problems have been reported all across the US, such as in Orange County, CA, Columbus GA, Portland ME, and other locales.
The problem is only growing. Wipes are hugely popular and continue to become more so.
Over the past ten years, the sale of wipes has been growing at about 7% annually. They encompass a broad market, used for household cleaning, make-up removal, sunscreen application, and of course, as a replacement for toilet paper.
As with many consumer goods, the answer is “not very”. However, since for this particular product trusting the label can lead to clogged toilets and expensive drain cleaning, not to mention city or even country-wide problems, it’s best not to flush any wipes.
Some companies, sadly, continue to claim that their products are flushable when they are definitely capable of causing clogged toilets and septic systems. Others have bowed to the pressures of a voluntary code of practice which includes a requirement to mark non-flushable wipes with the words “Do Not Flush”.
However, the guidelines do not state where the logo should be placed on the product, meaning it could go under the package flap in small print, or buried somewhere in the information on the back of the product, where the consumer would be unlikely to see it at all.
Some pressure for labeling products “Do Not Flush” has come from lawsuits combined with potential government regulations. Costco, in particular, has emerged as a leader in the push to keep our septic systems safe, clearly marking each product with the label “Do Not Flush”.
But how is the consumer to know what’s safe to flush and what’s not, especially when a label clearly states that they’re safe?
If you’re feeling lucky, and you don’t mind the possibility of emergency toilet repair, you might try dropping your wipe in the toilet next to a piece of toilet paper. If the wipe dissolves as fast or faster than the toilet paper, it may be safe to flush.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the general industry urges consumers not to flush anything but the obvious.
As the saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself. Here are a small number of suggestions for creating your our flushable bathroom wipes:
If you have any questions about what is and what isn't safe to flush, please call your local plumbing company, Dial One Sonshine in Stanton, CA at (714) 252-7460.
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