Wet wipes look like tissues and toilet paper, so they must be okay to flush down the loo, right? Wrong! Live for Less gives you the lowdown on the environmental problems around wet wipes, and what you can do to help prevent them.

What are wet wipes, exactly?

A wet wipe is a small moistened piece of cloth-like paper that often comes folded and packed for convenience. Wet wipes are used for personal hygiene, household cleaning and some workshop and industrial applications.

Wet wipes popularity comes down to the fact that they are a super convenient product. While used most commonly for baby clean ups and nappy changes, specific wet wipe products now exist for cleaning floors, toilet seats, wiping your hands and more.

So what’s the problem?

Many people think nothing of flushing wet wipes down the toilet. A survey by Sydney Water, for example, found that one in four people in Sydney were doing just that.

Unfortunately, wet wipes don’t disintegrate when flushed. This can create serious problems, such as:

  • Wipes can cause blockages in your household plumbing, potentially costing you money for plumbing repairs.
  • When they meet up with another nasty that’s commonly washed down the sink – cooking fat – they create the notorious “fatbergs” that can block sewerage networks.
  • They jam pumps and get caught in equipment at our sewage treatment plants.
  • They add to the overall cost of sewage treatment because they must be screened out, dumped in bins and trucked off to landfill.
  • They can be mistaken for food and can kill marine life when ingested.

“Flushable” isn’t flushable

Some makers of wet wipes label their wipes as “flushable”, claiming that are designed to dissolve and break up just like toilet paper. According to consumer group Choice, this has proven to be a misleading claim. It seems that “flushable” wet wipes can clog pipes, sewers and waste water treatment plans just as badly as other wipes.

While some brands in Australia have recently removed such messaging from their marketing after pressure from the waste industry, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently taking action against Kimberly-Clark for continuing to make these “flushable” claims.

The ACCC action stemmed from a complaint lodged by Choice, whose tests in 2015 found the Kleenex wipes were intact after 20 hours, while toilet paper dissolved in a few minutes. Subsequent tests by Choice on a new Kleenex product still found that the wipes did not break down enough to avoid being a hazard in sewage systems.

What is being done?

At an industry level, Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU) and similar organisations around Australia are working with peak national body Water Services Association of Australia to help solve what is an international problem. All have signed up to an industry position on ‘flushable’ products which calls for all wipes to be clearly marked as ‘Do Not Flush’ until there is an agreed standard.

In the meantime, QUU and others continue to educate the public with initiatives such as the Don’t Flush That campaign.

What can you do?

You can start at home by making sure that wet wipes go in a waste bin, not down the loo. Take a little time to educate everyone in your home about the problem. Remember, only flush the three P’s – Pee, poo and paper! Try sharing this short video from QUU.

Alternatively, you can try and get wet wipes out of your life altogether.

Here are some alternatives:

  • Kitchen and bathroom cleaning: grab a pack of microfibre cloths from the local discount shop
  • Baby stuff: buy reusable soft cloths, often available from the same places you buy cloth nappies. Simply dampen in advance and keep in a water proof pouch if you are going somewhere with no toilet facilities.
  • For removing makeup: olive oil and a soft cloth.
  • Antibacterial wipes for toilets: simply a cloth and some vinegar will have the same antibacterial benefits without releasing more antibiotics into the environment.

Ecothriftyliving.com points out that washing reusable cloths doesn’t negate the eco-friendliness of using reusable wipes. To produce disposable items takes water and energy, and they then end up in landfill. To reuse items takes some water and energy but then they don’t end up in landfill. Finally, you mightn’t even need to buy cloths for some situations like household cleaning – just chop up your old towels and/or sheets instead.