They're billed as a fresh, clean alternative to toilet paper — but waste-water utilities across Canada say personal wipes are creating putrid sewage clogs that are costing Canadian ratepayers at least $250 million a year.
Sewage experts in Canada, the U.S. and beyond are cringing at efforts to sell the masses on the need to freshen their nether regions, including a recent ad campaign for Cottonelle wipes featuring a cheeky British spokeswoman urging people in public places to "talk about your bum."
Manufacturers, on the other hand, say the wipes are getting the bum's rush from waste-water officials and are perfectly safe to flush.
Nonetheless, the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG), made up of 25 Canadian communities, wants a federal standard to ensure more honest labelling of the wipes and other products that they insist are not safe to send down the toilet.
Among them: Supposedly flushable toilet cleaning sponges, tampon applicators and even plush, multi-ply toilet paper.
'Flushing away millions'
While those products and personal wipes may swirl down the toilet with ease, experts say they don't disintegrate, creating serious problems as they work their way through aging sewage systems on their way to treatment plants.
"If we don't deal with this problem, the Canadian taxpayer will be literally flushing away millions," said Barry Orr, a waste-water official with MESUG.
"It's not a sexy topic — it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. People expect to flush things down the toilet and then don't want to think about it anymore. But for me, this is every-day life, and we have to get this information out to the public."
Indeed, Orr said, many municipal officials believe that MESUG's estimate of the $250 million annual cost is low and that wipes are poised to take a bigger toll. Personal wipes are a $6-billion industry in North America, one that's expected to grow six per cent annually over the next five years.
In both the U.S. and Canada, manufacturers voluntarily test products for flushability, but federal laws don't require third-party assessment or verification.
Consequently, Orr and his fellow sewage experts have spent the last two years urging manufacturers, including Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Nice-Pak, and the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) to address the problem.
"We had a discussion with them and we wanted to do some awareness, and asked them what they're doing about changing the labelling on these products," Orr said of a meeting earlier this year.
"We didn't make any progress; they seemed to not be very interested in our position."
Eric Bruner of Kimberly-Clark begs to differ, saying his company — maker of the popular Cottonelle wipes — works closely with the industry.
"Kimberly-Clark is committed to working with the waste-water community to ensure that sewage systems work properly and to educate consumers about what is safe to flush and what isn't," he said in an interview from the company's headquarters in Dallas.
"But if we label something safe to flush, we stand by that. We put these products through a litany of industry tests. ... I certainly know our products perform well in lab tests and field tests to ensure flushability."
Bruner and officials at Nice-Pak, which bills itself "the world's leading producer of wet wipes," say 90 per cent of what public utilities deal with in terms of clogs involve products that absolutely should not be flushed down the toilet, and are labelled as such.
'One of the questions that I have is why the focus on these products when it's been shown that 90 per cent of the products that are causing the utilities problems are things that, in fact, aren't flushable and aren't labelled as flushable' - source
"They're finding things like paper towels, feminine hygiene products, diapers and baby wipes. What we believe is that it's very important for consumers to read the labels," Bruner said.
"One of the questions that I have is why the focus on these products when it's been shown that 90 per cent of the products that are causing the utilities problems are things that, in fact, aren't flushable and aren't labelled as flushable."
Added Nice-Pak in a statement: "Four recent forensic studies did not find flushable wipes in pump clogs, and less than 10 per cent of the material found on inlet screens were identified as flushable wipes."
Indeed, INDA says its tests have proven flushable wipes aren't clogging municipal pipes. They point the finger at baby wipes, hard-surface wipes and other non-flushable items.
Nonetheless, Consumer Reports tested several brands of wipes labelled flushable and found that while toilet paper broke down after about eight seconds, the wipes showed no sign of disintegrating after 30 minutes in a toilet-flushing simulator.
Orr agreed that baby wipes are being flushed down the toilet and causing clogs, but he insisted personal wipes are also part of the problem.
MESUG members have set up traps across Ontario municipalities, Orr said, and they're catching hundreds of flushable wipes. The situation is the same across the country, with officials in Penticton, B.C., recently complaining publicly about the wipes.
Canadian utilities aren't alone in their battle against personal wipes.
In the U.S. capital region, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has spent more than $1 million installing powerful grinders to shred wipes before they reach pumps on their way to treatment plants.
The utility has also devoted hundreds of man-hours to unclog pipes and repair broken sewer lines. It blames wipes for blockages that have caused sewage to overflow into streams or back up into residential basements.
In western New York over the summer, utility officials installed strainers on sections of pipe that were often clogged to determine which households were the culprits. They then contacted residents and pleaded with them to stop flushing wipes.
And in England a few months ago, a 15-tonne blob of wipes and cooking grease the size of a bus — nicknamed "Fatberg" by the Brits — was discovered in a London sewer pipe after residents complained their toilets wouldn't flush.
Orr said it's just a matter of time before a similar phenomenon wreaks havoc in Canada.
"There needs to be a federal, centralized standard or else we'll soon be dealing with our very own, very costly Fatberg."