Is there any truth in advertising at all these days? When the sticker on a box of wet wipes claims they are “flushable”, does it mean they won’t harm plumbing or the sewage system? Or does that just mean they can physical fit down the toilet but will be whisked merrily away to cause a big stinking mess somewhere else?
Sadly, the evidence shows that flushable wipes are not good news for any septic system. Wipes don’t disintegrate in water like toilet paper is deigned to do. Instead, the wipe material stays mostly intact, creating a risk for obstructions down the line. These wipes may seem small on an individual basis, but they can build up over time since they catch easily on roots and other obstructions in the pipes that handle sewage. This can cause backups in pipes, in pump stations, and (even worse) inside homes and businesses.
How Big Is the Wipes Problem?
It’s hard to estimate how much buildup is taking place until it reaches a pretty severe level. But the giant masses of wet wipes in some sewage systems almost rival the Pacific garbage patch. London recently found a mass of wipes and cooking fats creating a 16 ton clog in their sewer system, and New York City has reportedly spent 18 million dollars to clear multiple “super knots” of flushed wipes. Pumps and grit screens in wastewater facilities can also be damaged by wipes, leading to even more infrastructure maintenance expenses.
Should We Do Away with Wipes?
This is obviously a personal choice—and wipes are a preferred cleaning option for anyone with irritated or sensitive skin. But using wipes without breaking pipes will require cultural change. In the U.S. (as opposed to countries with sewage infrastructure that can’t even handle toilet paper), people are accustomed to flushing everything to keep the restroom fresh and tidy. That’s why there are signs posted in public restrooms to remind visitors not to dispose of sanitary products or other items in the commode. Most people know they really shouldn’t be flushing dirty diapers or tampons, but it’s hard to argue that the public is at fault for flushing wipes when the label implies it’s safe to do so.
That’s why public agencies like the Leucadia Wastewater District are creating awareness campaigns to educate users about the damage of flushing wipes. See the #NoWipesDownthePipes video here. Of course if flushing is out, an acceptable alternate disposal method must be used. A lidded waste container with a disposable liner and foot pedal to open and close is an easy solution. It just requires everyone to cooperate in keeping the sewer systems clear, one wipe at a time.