Are Flushable Wipes Really Flushable?
In most cases, no. Here's why, according to plumbing experts.
If you’ve ever wondered if flushable wipes are too good to be true, you’re not alone. Last year I paid a sewer company to unclog a main drain in a rental property I own. The culprit? These so-called ‘flushable’ wipes.
I’ve since banned them from use in my rentals, but wondered if any flushable wipes were really OK to flush. To find out, I asked Alexander Siv from Amherst Plumbing and Heating and Jonathan Giedrowicz from Always Reliable Sewer and Drain for their first-hand knowledge.
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What Is a Flushable Wipe?
A flushable wipe is a pre-moistened disposable cloth made for personal hygiene use.
Packaged in resealable containers in neatly layered stacks of 50 to 100 wipes, they often contain a cleaning agent and scent. Marketed as a toilet paper alternative, flushable wipes supposedly break down quickly when flushed. This trait is critical to prevent clogs in your pipes.
Toilet paper starts disintegrating almost immediately in the turbulent water of a flushing toilet. But most flushable wipes are thicker and more absorbent than toilet paper and don’t break down as quickly, or at all.
So how do they receive this designation as ‘flushable?’ There’s no government-regulated standard for flushable wipes, so manufacturers can label their wipes as ‘flushable’ whether that’s entirely true or not.
To confuse matters more, some wipes aren’t labelled or intended to be flushable. These include baby, make-up and hand wipes with a high plastic content and don’t biodegrade in water at all. Instead, these go in the trash.
Flushable wipes manufacturers tend to distance their products from non-flushable ones. Sometimes there’s not much of a difference, making it confusing for consumers. “We see all sorts of wipes stuck in drains,” Siv says, “Flushable and otherwise.”
Are Flushable Wipes Really Flushable?
Generally not, according to our experts. To be safe, toss them in the trash.
Kimberly-Clark, makers of Cottonelle products, claim their wipes are “100% flushable” and “break down like toilet paper.” This appears to be true today, but wasn’t always the case. The company settled a lawsuit with the Charleston, South Carolina Water System for damage to their water-treatment equipment caused in part by Cottonelle flushable wipes.
Part of the settlement required Kimberly-Clark to change the labeling on their products and reengineer their wipes to meet guidelines set forth in part by the International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG). That’s a consortium of water associations, utilities and professionals providing guidance on what should and shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet, according to the IWSFG website.
Cottonelle Flushable Wipes now meet the IWSFG flushability criteria. However, other companies haven’t followed suit, and the flushability of their wipes remains unregulated.
If you ask plumbers, drain professionals and water treatment facility workers, they highly discourage flushing anything but the three Ps: pee, poop and toilet paper.
“I do not recommend flushing wipes,” Siv says, “Even ones that are labeled flushable.”
Giedrowicz agrees. “They’re not biodegradable,” he says, “They don’t break down.”
When a flushable wipe snags on an imperfection or elbow in your drain pipes, it sticks and stays put. “Once that happens, the wipe just starts catching everything that goes by until you have a clogged drain,” Giedrowicz says.
Siv says he sees this problem often. “We run into clogged drains from wipes pretty regularly,” he says, “It costs the homeowners and is such a preventable plumbing issue.” He suggests throwing all wipes away.
Even if flushable wipes make it through your plumbing, they can still cause problems in municipal sewer pipes or waste management facilities. “They get into the sewer plant’s equipment and clog things up there too,” Giedrowicz says. Those issues require expensive repairs — costs often passed on to consumers in the form of higher utility bills.
Our best advice for using flushable wipes? Don’t flush them. It’s not worth the risk.
About the Experts
Jonathan Giedrowicz has owned and operated Always Reliable Sewer and Drain in South Hadley, Massachusetts for eight years.
Alexander Siv owns Amherst Heating and Plumbing in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has a master plumber’s license in Massachusetts and more than 10 years of plumbing experience.