This is What Happens When We Put ‘Flushable Wipes’ Down the Toilet

It’s a growing problem around the country, and the small city of Wyoming, Minn., can’t take it anymore. Those flushable wipes so many of us love to use are causing an incredible amount of damage to municipal sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants.

Technically they are indeed “flushable” (as in you can put them in the toilet and won’t see them after you flush). It’s what happens after those wipes go down the toilet that’s causing headaches. They aren’t breaking down like they’re supposed to.

Instead, what they’re doing is gumming up the works in a big way. All over the country — from little Wyoming, Minn. to New York City — municipalities are having to repair or upgrade sewer equipment at great cost to just keep their systems functional.

What exactly is happening? After the wipes flush and disappear from your bathroom, they have to make it through the sewer system piping to wastewater treatment plants. They’re supposed to break up almost immediately, like toilet paper does, and flow with the water and the waste.

Mostly, they reportedly don’t do that. Baby wipes, feminine wipes, sanitized wipes and similar products remain intact and get snagged on piping joints and tree roots that have intruded into the piping. If the wipes do make it further down the line, they inevitably combine with grease and paper products, accreting into sticky, soppy globs that block and bind up treatment plant pumps and waste screens.

“They basically just form a knot and a clump in [wastewater system] pumps,” Harry Mathos, director of water resources in Beliot, Wisconsin, told RouteFifty.com.

When that happens, which is constantly, it looks like this:

Photo from Wyoming, Minn. lawsuit complaint, showing what these flushed wipes end up doing to the municipal sewer system.

Photo from Wyoming, Minn. lawsuit complaint, showing what these flushed wipes end up doing to the municipal sewer system.

“It’s a huge problem — an absolutely horrible problem,” the Minnesota Rural Water Association’s Frank Stuemke told the Star Tribune. “Wipes have shortened pumps’ lives and transformed what it means to maintain a system. To smaller communities, in particular, it can be difficult.”

Difficult indeed, and expensive. Municipal workers around the country who have to deal with this stinky, messy issue on a daily basis call these masses of wipes “polar bears.” Like many cities across the country, Wyoming, Minn. is spending big bucks it can ill afford to keep up with the damage being done.

“They’re stringy and instead of coming apart, they’ll stretch out and then two, three, four, five, six of them wrap together. It looks like a mop head,” Andy Coppola, plant manager at the Schenectady Water Pollution Control Facility in New York told The Daily Gazette. “Anyplace that stuff can hang up on, it will, and then when one grabs, the next one grabs, the next one grabs, and then you end up with an issue.”

Finally, the city of Wyoming decided to take action. It is suing six major manufacturers for their “false claims regarding the flushability of these wipes.” The city filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court on April 23, 2015.

“These flushable wipes do not degrade after flushing,” alleges the city’s complaint. “Rather, the flushable wipes remain intact long enough to pass through private wastewater drain pipes into the municipal sewer line, causing clogs and other issues for municipal and county sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants, resulting in thousands, if not millions, of dollars of damages.”

The city of Wyoming named six major manufacturers of this kind of wet wipe in its lawsuit. Defendants include Procter & Gamble Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., Nice-Pak Products, Inc., Professional Disposables International, Inc., Tufco Technologies Inc. and Rockline Industries.

What’s the industry response to this type of allegation?

Flushable wipes makers have “empathy for the challenges the wastewater operators are having with nonflushable materials impacting their systems,” Dave Rousse, president of the Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, told the Star Tribune. “However, we take great exception to any effort to blame flushable wipes for the problems being caused by nonflushable wipes.”

This image appears in the class action complaint filed by the city of Wyoming, Minn.

This image appears in the class action complaint filed by the city of Wyoming, Minn.  Do these wipes look like they’re breaking down right after being flushed?

Rousse says the source of everyone’s woe is consumers sending the wrong kind of wipes down the commode. However, many believe even the flushable wipes are not living up to the promises of biodegradability made on their packaging.

Wipe-clogged sewer systems aren’t a problem limited only to the United States. In 2013, the complaint notes, a “15-ton, bus-sized clog” formed in a sewer main in London, England. It took workers three weeks to dislodge the gargantuan blockade of wipes and grease. It took a further six weeks to repair the damage to the pipes.

Canada faces this problem, too. It spends about $250 million every year repairing damage caused by flushed wipes.

In addition to monetary damages, the city of Wyoming’s lawsuit demands:

  • A declaration that the defendants’ flushable wipes do not degrade and are not sewer safe
  • An order enjoining defendants to desist from further advertising, sale and distribution of said “flushable wipes”
  • An order requiring the defendants to establish a fund to compensate the city and others in the class for the cost associated with ongoing clean-up and removal of flushable wipes from their sewer systems

“I think people really do need to be educated on why they should not be flushing [wipes] into the septic systems,” Linda White, a homeowner in Wadena County, Minn., told The StarTribune. “I was shocked at how expensive it was to the city of Wadena to take care of this problem.”

Nearly everything we’re flushing contributes to this problem. Despite what the packaging might promise, experts say we should never flush items such as disposable diapers, diaper liners, baby wipes, pre-moistened wipes, household cleaning wipes or brushes, feminine hygiene products (yes, that means tampons, ladies), toilet seat covers, dog poop collection baggies and cat litter.

Sure, these disposable items are convenient. Are they good for sewer and septic systems? Experience says no, not at all.

Whether you’re on city sewer or have your own septic system, the only thing you should be flushing is poo, pee and toilet paper. Nothing else is guaranteed to break down fast enough to avoid problems, no matter what the packaging promises.

Disposability is handy but rarely good for the environment or our infrastructure. All that stuff has to go somewhere when we’re done with it. If it doesn’t magically disappear, we must deal with it.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

86 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

If they are not really flush-able with the same results as toilet paper, they need to be relabeled.

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Elizabeth Z.
Elizabeth Z3 years ago

These need to be banned!

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Sofia B.
Sofia B3 years ago

B P.

Toilet paper dissolve in water, it becomes a soggy mass that easily breaks apart into smaller pieces, thereby not getting stuck on anything and everything possible in the pipes.

The problem with wipes is that they do not fall apart, they stay as the same one piece as when flushed down the toilet, and if any part of the piece is snagged onto something the whole piece gets stuck and easily starts building a larger mass of more wipes and whatever else will stick to it, and will eventually grow so large it blocks the pipes, and then have to be manually removed from wherever it got stuck.

That is the difference, and that is why nothing that doesn't dissolve should be flushed down the toilet (including wipes, sanitary pads, tampons, tissues/Kleenex, and basically anything else except toilet paper).
Nor should chemicals, oils (including both motor and COOKING oils), or anything but bodily fluids be flushed down. The sewage system is built precisely to handle sewage (urine and feces), and anything else leads to problems and extra costs.

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B P.
Bree P3 years ago

I'm confused. How is toilet paper dealt with? How do these wipes make it through but toilet paper doesn't?

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Sen Senz
Sayenne H3 years ago

Not so flushable wipes

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Sherri O'Connor
Past Member 3 years ago

Yuk!!!

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Jane R.
Jane R3 years ago

If you have any of these "flushable" wipes, test them in a bucket of water. If they dissolve after awhile then they can be flushed but if they never dissolve, toss them in the trash!
I would be willing to bet that some will actually dissolve.

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Bill Eagle
Bill E3 years ago

Oh no! Flushable wipes aren't flushable?

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