For a long time wipes have existed as a fuzzy grey area in the part of my brain devoted to Garbage Knowledge. Antibacterial wipes, make-up removal wipes, baby wipes, “personal” wipes… When you start to look around you find them everywhere, and especially so during a time of pandemic when everyone is in a panic to keep things clean and sanitary.
But what were they?
Were they paper?
Were they plastic?
Were they some combination of the two?
Were they bad for the environment? (Psst! If you have to ask the answer is: Probably.)
And if they were bad, how bad, exactly?
I just didn’t know and so I avoided them as a general rule, with one notable exception: I’ve hung onto “personal” wipes. You know, those fussy, I want to be CLEAN wipes for people who don’t have a bidet in their bathroom. After all, I reasoned, they aren’t garbage: they go away! Flushed right into nothingness! Like magic!
That should’ve been my first clue. Because if I learned anything at all during our Year of No Garbage, it’s that nothing just “goes away.”
I reasoned that “flushable” was in the name of the product- so probably it didn’t contain plastic? Additionally, the package proclaimed: “Designed for Toilets“! and “Tested with Plumbers“! This all sounded good, but what specific information was Kimberly-Clark really giving us here? (“Tested with plumbers”? Like, there were plumbers in the vicinity, having coffee in the next room or something?)These statements were just vague enough that I should have immediately been suspicious.
But I wasn’t.
Then I was doing research on toilet paper, and I stumbled upon the answer to my question: what are wipes? The answer is that virtually all wipes— from Stridex pads and Wet Ones to one-use facial “spa” masks—are made of something called “spunlace.” And it turned out they are also a bit of a hot-button issue in the plumbing community.
This is because spunlace is a fabric made of a combination of materials like polyester, polypropelene, rayon, cotton, and tencel. The fibers are bound together by “hydroentanglement” which is to say a treatment of high-pressure water. Reading more, I found out that because of the plastics involved, not only is spunlace not biodegradable, it is notorious for clogging up sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants all over the world.
When this happens it can be super bad: have you ever heard about the phenomenon of “fatbergs”? These are rock-like masses composed of things like wipes and congealed grease. When these occur they can cause city sewage systems to overflow with untreated sewage. What happens then? Well the fatberg must be excavated and then… you guessed it. Landfilled or burned.
(You can peruse a nice list of “Notable Fatbergs” on Wikipedia. In 2017, excavated pieces of a 140 ton fatberg on display at the Museum of London apparently became one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. )
What I never knew about the phenomenon, though, is that fatbergs seem to be directly linked to our increased usage— and flushing— of wipes. The Wet Nap hand wipe was trademarked in 1958 and has grown and morphed into thousands of different wipe products on the market today. The term “fatberg” was coined around 2010, and in 2015 a British sewer company reported that two-thirds of their blockages are now caused by wet wipes.
So the first moral of this story seems to be that no matter how pliable and tissue-like a wipe may seem, any wipe that doesn’t say “flushable” on the packaging should never, EVER be flushed. Cleaning, make-up and baby wipes are all permanent landfill fodder. Don’t buy them.
But what about my supposedly “flushable” wipes? It turns out I was right about one thing: any wipe that claims it is flushable can’t contain plastic, which means my Cottonelle’s are different: they are made entirely of paper. However, there is clear disagreement in the plumbing and wastewater community about whether even 100% paper wet wipes break down fast enough to avoid causing problems.
On their website Cottonelle’s defense against such accusations is to tout the fact that their product is “Approved by JEA”!! If you look closer you see that the JEA stands for Florida’s “Jacksonville Electric Authority.”
So one wastewater treatment facility in the entire country endorses this product? One out of the approximately 14,000 wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S.? Maybe we shouldn’t be too impressed by this high power endorsement. I’m more inclined to listen to Consumer Reports, whose test in 2013 determined that all four of the leading wipes (including my beloved Cottonelle) failed to break down in an agitation test. Then in 2019 Forbes reported on an independent study that tested 101 different wipes for disintegration and “flushability”- and-
—wait for it—
…not one of them passed.
What experts will tell you is that it has yet to be proven that paper-only wipes are any less harmful than spunlace wipes. For folks who are on a public sewer system the wipe just doesn’t have enough time or agitation to disintegrate before it reaches the sewage pump in a matter of minutes. If we are lucky the wipe gets filtered out, and set aside to be either landfilled or burned. If not? Fatberg.
But back to my bathroom. Because we are in the country, we are not on a sewer system, so the process is a little different: whenever someone in my house uses a “flushable” wipe, it gets deposited in the septic tank buried in our yard. While liquids run off and eventually deposit into a leach field, the wipe will fall to the bottom with the sludge.
Maybe it degrades in there. According to my husband, since we only need to pump our tank out every seven to ten years, he thinks it is likely that the paper does get broken down by bacteria and enzymes in the septic system, because it is over a long period of time.
I don’t know. But all this new information has brought me to two conclusions.
First: Unless verified by an objective third party, don’t trust companies’ claims. (You’d think I’d have learned this by now, yes?) In this case, “Flushable“! probably isn’t.
Second: I’ve been avoiding it, but I think it’s finally time to look into a bidet attachment. I’ll avoid the wipe conundrum, as well as the plastic packaging the wipes come in, and I’ll probably save on toilet paper too.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite wet wipe you are loath to give up? Or a bidet attachment you like? Extra points for a good fatberg story.