'Flushable' wipes? Environment group asks Competition Bureau to probe claim

Friends of the Earth Canada wants the Competition Bureau to investigate a recent study it says proves there is no such thing as a "flushable" wipe.

Recent study at Ryerson found 21 of 23 wipes didn't disintegrate in drains

The CEO of a Canadian environmental group called claims of flushability for single-use wipes 'the most outrageous greenwashing I've seen in a long, long time.' (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

Friends of the Earth Canada wants the Competition Bureau to investigate a recent study it says proves there is no such thing as a "flushable" wipe.

"This is the most outrageous greenwashing I've seen in a long, long time," said Friends of the Earth CEO Beatrice Olivastri.

The organization, represented by lawyers at EcoJustice, is filing an application for an inquiry with the Competition Bureau, citing a recent Ryerson University study that tested 23 wipes labelled as "flushable." Researchers found none of them actually lived up to that claim.

Two of the "flushable" products partially disintegrated in drains; 21 of them didn't disintegrate at all.

Some of them took six flushes just to get through a toilet.

Bronwyn Roe, a staff lawyer at EcoJustice, said the Competition Act requires the bureau to launch an inquiry if it receives a complaint from a minimum of six people. The complaint in this case argues the companies involved are using deceptive marketing practices.

The complaint asks for a fine of $10 million for every product sold under a bogus claim of flushability, including baby wipes, wet wipes for adults and older kids, toilet-brush pads and wipes, diaper liners, and bags for dog poop.

Part of the problem is that there is no one standard for what the word "flushable" means. Olivastri said there is one standard created by an international association of water utilities and professionals but another was developed by the companies that make the products.

Olivastri said the companies are taking advantage of consumers' desire for convenience to push products that buyers wrongly believe will break down once they are flushed.

The Ryerson study tested 101 different products. The only ones that fully disintegrated after being flushed were varieties of toilet paper — which, the study notes, weren't even labelled as flushable.

'Fatbergs' clog pipes, cause millions in damage

Single-use wipes have become the bane of municipal sewage systems, clogging pipes and causing millions of dollars in damage and clean-up costs every year.

Barry Orr, the city sewer outreach and control inspector in London, Ont., and one of the authors of the study, estimates Canadian municipalities spend at least $250 million a year to remove blockages and wipes are the main culprit.

Olivastri said the new estimate is that municipalities are spending $1 billion to replace damaged sewer equipment.

The wipes, many of which contain large amounts of plastic, get caught in the pipes and collect grease, more wipes and other gunk. The result: "fatbergs," congealed lumps that won't come apart on their own.

Last year the BBC found single-use wipes were behind 80 per cent of clogs in Britain's sewers. In Charleston, S.C. last November, divers had to swim through 30 m of raw sewage to pull giant clumps of wipes out of the sewer system. In January, officials in Bradenton, Fla., blamed wipes for causing a 45-cm sewer pipe to burst, leaking more than 300,000 litres of raw sewage into a nearby creek.

In the British seaside resort town of Devon earlier this year, water operators uncovered a 64-metre-long fatberg of wet wipes and congealed fats in the sewer that will take at least eight weeks to remove.

Olivastri said the wipes that don't clog in sewers end up in waterways.

"People are catching them instead of fish," she said.

Olivastri said the only thing people should put down their toilets is toilet paper.


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