Water companies are calling for all wipes to be classified as unflushable until an international standard is agreed

What is a wet wipe?

Wipes are disposable sheets, designed for various cleaning and sanitary applications, from industrial de-greasers to baby wipes, make-up removers and moist toilet tissue.

Most are not intended to be flushed down the toilet, but some claim to be flushable. However, owing to problems with wipes not breaking down in sewerage systems, water companies are now calling for all wipes to be classed as non-flushable until an international standard for flushability is agreed.

Why are wet wipes a problem?

Because they need to be strong when wet, wipes are much more robust than regular toilet paper. That means they don’t break down as easily when flushed and can block pipework and pumps in sewerage systems. They can also combine with fats in sewers to create ‘fatbergs’ that block pipes and have to be removed mechanically, which is expensive. A lot of the problems with wipes blocking sewerage systems are caused by people flushing away non-flushable wipes. ‘Flushable’ wipes are designed to break down more quickly, but water companies say they are still causing blockages.

What are wipes made from?

They are generally made from non-woven materials – usually fibrous materials like cellulose from wood pulp, sometimes reinforced with polymers like viscose. Non-flushable wipes may include man-made fibres like poly(ethylene) or poly(propylene) for extra strength.

The fibres are spun into a tangled mat and then compressed, along with binders and other materials, to make a sheet. This can then be impregnated with cleaning products, preservatives and other chemicals, depending on the intended application.

Flushable wipes generally use shorter fibres than non-flushables, and may include treatments to help them disintegrate more quickly after use.

How are ‘flushable’ wipes tested?

There is no compulsory test for a product to be marketed as flushable. The industry associations for non-woven products in the US (INDA) and Europe (EDANA) have worked with water industry research bodies since 2008 to develop voluntary test guidelines for their member companies.

The guidelines outline a series of tests that should be passed for a product to be classed as flushable. The tests include whether the product will pass through domestic pipework, whether it clogs household or municipal sewage pumps and how quickly it disintegrates under various water treatment conditions.

Does that mean wipes marked as flushable are OK to flush?

That’s a tricky question. While the INDA/EDANA tests are quite rigorous, and have been developed with input from the water treatment industry, they are not perfect. They are based around specified consumer behaviour patterns – certain numbers of wipes in a given number of flushes, including paper and simulated poo (yes that’s a real thing!).

If people don’t follow those recommended patterns of use – for example by using too many wipes per flush – then the wipes may not break down properly and contribute to sewerage problems.

There’s also a problem that these guidelines are voluntary and self-regulated. While INDA and EDANA member companies (which represent the majority of wipe manufacturers) may be working hard to test and improve the flushability of their products, there is little to stop non-member companies from marketing products that do not pass these tests as flushable. This is why the water companies are calling for all wipes to be classed as unflushable until a legally-binding international standard for flushability can be established.

The fact that some wipes are marketed as flushable but others aren’t also potentially causes problems, since consumers might either not know that there’s a difference, not understand (or possibly not care). Designating all wipes as non-flushable simplifies the message to users, which could help reduce problems with non-flushable wipes being flushed.

However, from the manufacturers’ point of view, there is a demand for these products. They have also invested time and resources in developing materials that meet the best available standards (developed in collaboration with the water industry), so they will naturally seek to maintain the flushability claim as it is a major selling point.

The safest option is not to flush any wipes, even those marketed as flushable. Used wipes could be bagged up and disposed of in landfill (in the same way that baby wipes or tampons and sanitary towels would be). If you really must use a flushable wipe, check that the manufacturer is a member of INDA and/or EDANA, and try to use them sparingly.