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Disposable wet wipes have many uses, such as personal hygiene, baby care, and household cleaning. In recent years, another use has emerged as a toilet paper substitute for affluent consumers, cited for comfort and convenience compared to regular toilet paper. Wet wipes marketed as flushable and safe for septic systems started appearing in stores, and public facilities began setting up dispensers in their restrooms. However, many people have since questioned whether or not these wet wipes are actually flushable. Given that septic systems are both vital in function and sensitive to what gets put in them, these are valid concerns. Over the years, cases have come up where the answer to the question “are flushable wipes safe?” turns out as not as confident a “yes” as one would hope.
Marketers are obligated by the Federal Trade Commission to not lie about products under pain of fines and lawsuits. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that marketing is always true. Companies sometimes use loopholes in what the FTC regulates to say misleading things about their products. The use of the term “flushable” is one such case: there does not exist a legal definition of what counts as “flushable.” In common conversation, one can describe something as flushable simply because it can be flushed down the toilet, but another definition would specify items that can be flushed and then will not cause plumbing issues. Wet wipes generally fit the first usage, so companies can call their wipes flushable. For example, when pressed on the subject, Kimberly-Clark, one company responsible for various brands of hygiene products, made a video to demonstrate that their wipes are, indeed, flushable. The focus is on the looser definition, though, with the video emphasizing that the wipes can pass through “properly maintained drain lines” that, in the demonstration, don’t simulate the expected conditions of real-world septic pipes except after thorough cleaning. Making matters worse are cases where consumers mistake non-flushable wipes as “flushable” ones because the “do not flush” warning is too easily overlooked.
What goes down the toilet doesn’t just vanish, but is piped into a septic tank or the sewer. Toilet paper found widespread use in restrooms following the invention of flushing toilets because of its ability to quickly break down in water, preventing clogs in the new plumbing lines. It can do this because it’s composed of a specially-manufactured paper made to be highly biodegradable, often recycled paper treated to remove byproducts. On the other hand, many disposable wipes are made of nonwoven textiles such as polyester, cotton, and air laid paper made from bulkier wood pulp. These fibers are chosen for holding together better when wet, necessary for their intended function, but this comes with a downside. Plastic fibers are rarely biodegradable, while cotton and air laid paper are biodegradable but do not break down quickly in water. Looking at the video by Kimberly-Clark, the demonstration shows “flushable” wipes only starting to break down after 35 minutes of constant churning in clean water, fully disintegrating three hours later. Put simply, these aren’t conditions you’ll find in a typical septic tank. All too often, flushable wipes that break down don’t actually break down soon enough.
Anything flushed down the drain that doesn’t disintegrate can build up, and enough cases of not quite “flushable” items snag and entangle in pumps occur that it gets a name: “ragging.” Sewer agencies across the nation have had to contend with this growing problem, which ties up labor needed for more typical maintenance and can lead to disaster if unchecked. News lines about events like the London ‘fatberg’ may seem almost far-fetched, but they’re a reality that municipal infrastructures face. Blockage in septic lines gets out of hand easily because a bit of snagged waste provides a surface for more waste to catch on, and a major component of that blockage is “flushable” wipes, as the fatberg demonstrates. Compounded on top of other factors that put stress on a plumbing line, wipes that don’t break down effectively can push everything to a breaking point. This can happen just as easily for your home’s septic system as it can for a larger municipal system.
Are flushable wipes bad for plumbing? While companies will insist that their cleaning wipes actually are flushable—and they may be right on some level—experts worldwide are still unhappy. Environmental and regulatory agencies point to demonstrated cases over the years of disposable wipes being found as the culprit in sewer failures, and enough lawsuits have arisen that it’s hard to deny the damage they can cause. In an ideal environment like the tests that manufacturers conduct to prove their case, flushable wipes may not be a threat, but plumbing is rarely that tidy; aging pipes and infrastructure, as well as the presence of other almost-flushable materials, allows them to grow into a serious issue. When a blockage does occur, the costs of cleaning, repair, and further maintenance can be considerable; however, they’re costs that can also be avoided. Overall, it may be wise to skip the flushable wipes and stick to toilet paper, or at least throw them away instead of flushing them.
Even if you’re smart about what goes down the drain, mistakes still happen, and you can find your toilet won’t flush. Sometimes, you get warning signs, but in many cases, a plumbing system that seems functional can suddenly halt due to any number of circumstances. This is why businesses like Whipple Service Champions are available and on call 24 hours a day. The technicians there are trained, certified, and experienced in handling all sorts of plumbing problems, from wet wipe-induced blockages to busted pipes flooding the basement. When an unexpected emergency strikes, contact Whipple Service Champions to save the day.