When a package of wipes is labeled “flushable,” what does this really mean? There is no standard definition of flushable and no regulations regarding the term’s use on product packaging. For product manufacturers and marketers, flushable seems to mean that the product goes through a toilet and makes it out into the collection system. However, wastewater utilities know that just because a product can be flushed into the sewer system, it is not necessarily safe for the system. As shown in on a previous blog post – "Flushable” Wipes, Clogging Pipes in The Water Voice, wipes and other products can clog pumps and screens, resulting in an expensive and time-consuming process to unclog, repair, or replace equipment.
On one major retailer’s webpage for its two-ply flushable wipes, the following information about flushability of these wipes is given:
IMPORTANT FLUSHABILITY INFORMATION:
[These wipes] comply with all industry guidelines and are proven to pass through a home's well-maintained toilet, pump and drain line without clogging. The wipe is very different than other wipes and made of a special dispersible material that breaks apart into smaller pieces due to mechanical action of flushing process.
(The “industry guidelines” may refer to the voluntary guidelines published by INDA, the nonwoven fabrics association, which most utilities do not believe are stringent enough.)
Is this retailer’s claim that the wipe “breaks apart into smaller pieces due to mechanical action of flushing process” really true, though? To test this claim, staff at the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority (PARSA) in Middlesex, New Jersey, designed the “PARSA Potty”:
and then constructed it:
Then they labeled each side of a wipe with an A and B:
The wipe was placed in the PARSA Potty:
And then the flushing commenced! This is what the wipe looked like after 15 flushes – both sides are still intact:
After 25 flushes, the A side of the wipe has separated from the B side and is finally starting to break apart a bit:
At flush 40, the A side is breaking up a little more, but the B side is still fully intact:
After 100 flushes, the A side is still visible (on the left side of the toilet) and has certainly not broken apart as much as toilet paper, and the B side shows no change:
Although the A side of the wipe did at least partially break apart, it took over 40 flushes for this to happen. And the B side didn’t break apart even after 100 flushes. Therefore, the retailer’s claim that the wipe’s “special dispersible material that breaks apart into smaller pieces due to mechanical action of flushing process” does not stand up to the flushing.
Since most people will only get one flush when they put these wipes into the toilet, it appears that the wipes will make it into the sewer system intact. What happens to the wipes then? Do they break apart in the collection system? The results of a field test in Vancouver, Washington, to find the answers to these questions will be posted soon.
For more information, visit NACWA’s page of resources about flushable wipes and other non-dispersible products at www.nacwa.org/flushables.