Are Flush able Wet Wipes Wrecking Australia's Sewer System?
It’s a fact wet wipes block sewer pipes and are costing Australia money. Last year, the ABC reported a severe blockage in the underground pipes in Newcastle.
Hunter Water Corporation had to use a crane to drag out a 7-metre ‘snake’ weighing 750 kilogrammes of blocked flushable wet wipes and sewage. Another 300 kilogrammes were removed by hand using buckets (Cox, 2016).
Wet Wipes Block Sewer Pipes
Wet wipes block sewer pipes because they are made of fabric steeped in oils and moisturisers, and these chemicals make it hard to break down the wipes.
When they are flushed down the toilet they get inside the pipes (even in private properties) where they can easily clog up around tree roots that may have penetrated the pipes.
When wet wipes mix with oils and fats they create an impossible cluster known as ‘fatbergs’.
Fatbergs are responsible for 80% of sewage blockages in NSW (Wingate-Pearse and Humphries, 2016), while Queensland Urban Utilities, which manages 6000 pipes in Queensland, cleans up to 4000 fatberg blockages each year.
Sydney Water also spends more than $8 million a year clearing fatbergs, while SA Water is spending up to $400,000 annually to deal with blockages in pumping stations and treatment plants.
Clearing the blockage is expensive and, more often than not, requires not only the use of expensive equipment but also labour-intensive human effort.
If not cleared, the blockage can cause sewage overflow into creeks, rivers, and beaches, potentially causing irreversible damage to the environment and to human health.
It is so serious a problem that Sydney Water has a special dedicated page on their website to warn consumers to keep wet wipes away from the toilet bowl.
In December last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Action (ACCC) launched a class-action lawsuit from unhappy consumers against Kimberley-Clark and Pental for falsely advertising their products as ‘flushable and able to disintegrate like toilet paper’ (Chung, 2016; Ong, 2016).
ACCC aims to force these manufacturers to stop the continued false marketing that their products can easily disintegrate.
Tests conducted by consumer group Choice show that flushable wet wipes did not break down in the 21-hour testing period (Wingate-Pearse & Humpries, 2016). Yet one in four Australian households is still flushing wet wipes down their toilets (Whitey, 2016).
Although manufacturers have produced new products they claim are tested following flushability guidelines, these products are still not as degradable as normal toilet paper.
As late as last year, water utilities from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and across Europe collectively agreed that only toilet paper should be flushed and called for all other products (including flush able wet wipes) to be re labelled as ‘Do Not Flush’ until there is a standard that can be agreed by water utilities (‘Joint international statement on non-flush able,’ 2016).
Flush able wet wipes, therefore, should not be labelled as ‘flush able’ by their manufacturers since they are not following Australian standards because a universal standard is yet to be developed at this stage.
Wet wipes block sewer pipes and are an unnecessary cost to the taxpayers. They also pose serious threats to human health and the environment. Responsible Australians should stop and think before they flush them down the toilet.