Not so Flushable Wipes

Today, we live in a world of convenience where we have manufactured products to make everyday tasks easier. I save a lot of time using a washing machine, buying premade clothing, and traveling in a car. But, the world has begun to realize that convenience comes with economic and environmental costs. Using wash cloths to clean up small spills instead of using paper towels is a great way to reduce daily expenses and being environmentally conscious. It may seem daunting, but even small changes in our choices like washing clothes in cold water instead of hot can make a difference. We sometimes need to stop and consider if the convenience of an item is worth the cost of using it. One such convenience, that you may not have considered the impact of, is the ‘flushable’ wipe.

 

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Moist Wipes. Image Credit: Karen Bobier.

Moist wipes, frequently marketed as baby wipes, facial towelettes, or personal hygiene wipes for men, often bear the word ‘flushable’ on their packaging. Despite this claim, these ‘flushable’ wipes should not be flushed down the toilet. Sure, they will usually go down the drain, but unlike toilet paper these wipes don’t break down in the sewer. Since these wipes stay intact, they can cause a variety of problems once they leave your toilet.

 

Wipes can become snagged in pipes and cause build-up of debris, blockages, or overflows of the sewer system. When this occurs, sewage can backup into your house. This can cause major inconveniences for homeowners as well as cities. Clogs and backups of the sewer system increase the frequency of maintenance, repair, replacements, and clean up needed for the sewer. This increases the economic burden of moving our wastewater from our homes to the water treatment plant. If wipes make it through the sewer and reach a water treatment facility, they may cause further problems by clogging equipment, resulting in hundreds of thousand of dollars in damage to a facility every year.

Wipes also contribute to the creation of ‘fatbergs’, multi-ton sewage blockages that form when congealed grease and fat from kitchen drains combine with other non-biodegradable sewer items like tampons, needles, and ‘flushable’ wipes. In 2017, London removed a 130-ton fatberg from their system. Cities and utility companies are coming up with creative ways to try to prevent the formation of these fatbergs in the future. JEA Utilities, based in Jacksonville, recently released a spoof horror movie trailer about an invasion of fatbergs to inform the public about the dangers of sending flushable wipes and other items down the drain.

In addition to the increased cost of maintaining our sewers and water treatment facilities, clogs caused by wipes can result in spills of untreated wastewater into nature. Earlier this year, 4500 gallons of raw sewage spilled out of a blocked system and into Steele Creek and Lake Wylie in North Carolina. This spill caused health concerns due to bacteria and parasite contamination, and resulted in the closure of the lake to swimming.

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Sewer spill in Proctor creek in Atlanta with ‘Flushable’ wipes accumulating around it. Photo Credit: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Used with permission.

When sewers overflow, wipes also spill and get into rivers. In late 2018, sewer systems near the Chattahoochee River were overwhelmed with abundant rain and high river levels resulting in 10.5 million gallons of raw sewage spilling into the Chattahoochee River. As waters from this spill have begun to recede, they are leaving behind a mat of flushable wipes tangled in trees lining the river. These wipes will likely remain littering the Chattahoochee River and the tree lines next to the creek until someone removes them or they flow farther downstream, eventually reaching the ocean and littering our beaches. These wipes can negatively impact wild creatures who may try to eat them and die from choking, or clogging their digestive system just like our city’s pipes. Once wipes finally start to break apart, they become tiny fragments or microplastics that contaminate our water and harm animals that consume them.  

This particular convenience may seem like an integral part of your life, some small changes can help reduce your impact. Simply throwing your wipes in the trash instead of the toilet can help reduce sewer clogs and wastewater spills. If you are looking for a cleaner feel after you use the restroom, you could invest in a bidet or peri bottle. Still want something you can flush? An alternative to wipes is to use toilet paper sprayed with water. If you are wondering if something should be flushed down the toilet, the answer is likely no. Athens Clarke County recommends following the 4 Ps of flushing: pee, poo, paper, and puke. For more ideas to help keep our infrastructure and stream healthy follow ACC Water Warrior, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and Savannah Riverkeeper.

About the Author

Karen Bobier Karen Bobier is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Genetics studying populations of freshwater fishes in North Georgia and the evolution of DNA methylation genes. In her spare time she enjoys reading, hanging out with her dog, and is a member of the Red and Black Archery Club. You can email her at Karen.bobier25@uga.edu. More from Karen Bobier.