Flushed and Confused

Are flushable wipes really flushable?


flushable wipes
Actual photos like this taken from a restroom leave patrons wondering “flush or no flush?”

To Flush or Not to Flush, that is the question—and the disagreement that continues to pit many municipalities, plumbers and other entities that deal with sewers against some wipe manufacturers.

Two for One
Whether or not a wipe is considered flushable largely depends on who is testing it—and what guidelines are being used.

One set of specifications comes from the International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG), self-defined as a “ group of dedicated water professionals seeking to provide clear guidance on what should and shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet to protect customers, wastewater systems, utility workers and the environment.” Among its members are the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, the U.S. National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and other water and wastewater related groups in Australia, Japan, Spain, and New Zealand.

A second organization, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA), describes itself as “the leading global trade associations representing consumer wipes manufacturers and supply chains.” INDA recently published its fourth edition of Guidelines for Assessing the Flushability of Disposable Nonwoven Products, which is designed for manufacturers to ensure their flushable wipes are compatible with existing wastewater infrastructure.

So what if there are two standards, as long as they determine what is flushable and what it not? Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, it is not that easy; the two standards differ in multiple areas, including testing components, such as agitation, rinse time, temperature—even the amount of material that ultimately must be able to pass through a 12.5 mm sleeve to be deemed “flushable” (60 percent for the INDA guidelines vs. 95 percent to meet the IWSFG standards).

Testing, One, Two, Three
Flushable wipe manufacturers cite the fact that flushable wipes don’t contain the plastic fiber found in regular wipes, and therefore do breakdown even if it is not as quickly as toilet paper. Siding with the flushables is New York’s Responsible Flushing Alliance (RFA), which in February 2016, conducted what it called “a definitive test” at New York’s Wards Island wastewater treatment plant. The study found just 2 percent of what gets stuck in sewer lines were fragmentary remnants of flushable wipes while 57 percent came from nonflushable wipes and the remainder from items such as sanitary products and paper towels, which should never be toilet-bound. The American Council for Science and Health favored the study, calling the 2 percent “trivial.”

Yet other research, including tests conducted by Consumer Reports and, most recently, a study released April 7, 2020, published by Ryerson University, claims otherwise. The Ryerson study tested 101 wipes, including 23 labeled “flushable,” using the wastewater industries specifications for toilet and drain line clearance plus disintegration. The findings: “Not one of the wipe samples fell apart or dispersed enough to safely pass through the sewer system without a risk of clogging or causing system test, which can negatively impact household plumbing, municipal sewage infrastructure, and consequently, the environment.” The research concluded that the finding “calls for a legislated standard definition around the term ‘flushable.’” To date, no such legal definition exists

Fat Stakes
The adamant opposition of the two sides is understandable given the money involved. Canadian municipalities estimate it costs them $250 million annually to remove “fatbergs”—giant clogs in sewers that form when wipes and other solids fail to disintegrate, and instead, become stuck together by kitchen grease and other fatty substances. Meanwhile, the IWSFG estimates that U.S. municipalities spend between US$500 million and $1 billion a year fighting fatbergs and unclogging pipes, sewer pumps and other underground equipment. And in December 2018, The European Parliament cited studies that found “flushable” wet wipes are responsible for 93 percent of blockages in UK sewers, at a cost of GBP100 million a year.

On the profit side of the argument, one report estimates the global market for flushable wipes will reach as high as $3.5 billion by 2023. Other reports cited similar jumps, and these predictions were way before the tremendous surge the product category has experienced as a result of the Coronavirus.

No Order in the Court
When it comes to its stance on the issue, the website for the Napa Sanitation District in Napa, CA, minces no words: “Single-use/anti-bacterial wipes should be disposed of in landfills. This includes so-called “flushable” wipes, which aren’t actually flushable and can clog sewer pipes. “



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