New Brunswick

Flushable wipes that aren't flushable blamed for clogging Fredericton sewage system

Fredericton residents are being fooled by misleading packaging and labelling into thinking they can flush "flushable" wipes down the toilet, but all they're doing is clogging the sewer system, says a city engineer.

Many people fall for misleading labels, and the problem adds to city costs, engineer says

Neil Thomas said the city has had to pull tons of wipes from its lagoons. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Fredericton residents are being fooled by misleading packaging and labelling into thinking they can flush "flushable" wipes down the toilet, but all they're doing is clogging the sewer system, says the city's senior water and sewer engineer.

Neil Thomas said wipes are like single-use plastic and cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage a year to the city's water and sewer system.

"The fact of the matter is, we still see lots of wipes, unnecessary garbage in our sewage lift stations and our waste-water treatment plants."

While personal wipes may swirl down the toilet with ease, they don't disintegrate. This can cause serious problems as they work their way through sewage systems on their way to treatment plants, including overflows and clogged pumps. 

You have pictures of bunny rabbits and birds and green leaves, and it all implies to … the consumer that it's safe to flush.- Neil Thomas, City of Fredericton

The wipes also get tangled and snagged in lift stations that stop pumps. 

And the solution could be simple.

The packaging should clearly identify what the product is made out of.  

"Consumers are being led to believe it's OK to flush a used wipe product down the toilet, so that it becomes a garbage problem for us trying to operate a sewage collection and treatment systems."

If people realized flushable wipes are made of a synthetic fibre that behaves like single-use plastic, they would avoid flushing them.  

"Clear consumer messaging can't do anything but help."

He said the federal government can play a role by helping manage the labelling information on packages."

Wipes not environmentally friendly 

Thomas said the label of "flushable" is misleading because it suggests something that is environmentally friendly.

"You have pictures of bunny rabbits and birds and green leaves, and it all implies to … the consumer that it's safe to flush."

He said the next step to eliminate the problem is to develop specifications for what actually is flushable and lobby the federal government to implement proper labelling.

This isn't just a problem in Fredericton. Thomas said municipalities across Canada and the U.S. face the same issue. 

"The broader message of not to flush garbage — unfortunately we are not winning it so far here in the city." 

About the Author

Elizabeth Fraser

Reporter/Editor

Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip? elizabeth.fraser@cbc.ca

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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