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Flushable Wipes: Another Marketing Lie, and Homeowners Pay a Huge Price

Words by Leon Kaye

If you are a young and ambitious attorney who would like to start litigation that would set you financially for life, consider a class-action lawsuit against the wet-wipe manufacturers that say their products are “flushable.” Research the marketing claims of companies including Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Walmart, Costco, and other companies and retailers that say baby wipes, sanitary wipes, feminine wipes, masculine wipes — just about any “wipe” — will break down in a septic tank or sewer pipe.

Because the truth is: Wet wipes are absolutely NOT flushable. As any knowledgeable plumber or wastewater manager will tell you, no wipes should flow down the drain at all. Do a quick Internet search, and you will find plenty of evidence insisting they should be thrown in the garbage bin, not in your toilet. While pulp and paper manufacturers pass the buck, anyone who has a simple knowledge of science and can run a few tests, such as the folks at Consumer Reports, will demonstrate the simple fact: These wipes do not break down, at least while they flow from bathroom to sewer pipe to wastewater treatment center.

I know this firsthand because my bathtub backed up in my Fresno, California, condo last December. By California standards, the neighborhood in which I live is ancient at 50 years old, but neither the pipes nor any tree roots were the culprit: A ball of baby wipes that had collected at a sewer main, before anything could flow into a larger pipe, caused the blockage. The result, as many reminded me, was that “S—t happens,” and it sure did -- in my bathroom, on my floors, and throughout most of my living space. Yes, as many people loved to admonish me, “well, at least the insurance company paid for it,” but that is besides the point. My HOA has to pay a $5,000 deductible, and it was not the first time my complex dealt with this problem. Another condo here recently had the same fiasco.

Hence, up go the HOA fees, up go the insurance premiums, and multiply that figure by what I am sure are at a minimum of tens of thousands of homes, apartment and condominium developments, and even commercial buildings across the United States. The results lead to a massive waste of money, water and labor because some marketers -- most of whom probably have never touched a wrench or even know how to shut off a water main -- have decided to promote a “brand differentiator” in the name of increased sales.

The problem has festered all over the country, and now wastewater managers and civil engineers are saying enough is enough. Cities including New York, Washington, D.C. and London are dealing with increased costs due to these irresponsible companies, and yes, clueless consumers.

The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, the public relations front that is shameless enough to promote these products, has promoted a few token directives at curbing the practice of flushing wipes down the toilet, but it has unapologetically defended these products. In fact its president, Dave Rousse, has refused to accept any responsibility, giving the New York Times an absurd retort that such sewage problems are caused by “nonflushable wipes inappropriately flushed.”

It is already bizarre that companies like Clorox promote these wasteful products as superior to rags or even paper towels, saying that alternative methods of cleaning surfaces result in “pushing (germs) around.” (In fairness, Clorox tells its customers to toss their wipes in the trash.) Kimberly-Clark even boasts that its wipes as “green” and beneficial for the environment, but any product with 20 percent recycled content is hardly responsible when it could result in more jackhammered concrete, wasted water, and financial hits to a homeowner or apartment manager’s bottom line. More sanitation and engineering officials are pressing these manufacturers to remove the “flushable” moniker from their products, but until these companies have to deal with mounting legal and financial hits, do not expect them to do so, ever.

True, high-density housing complexes should regularly snake their pipes, and low-flush toilets also contribute their own plumbing risks. Furthermore, almost anything small and flexible is technically flushable; but that does not mean they should go down the drain, and that includes any and all wipes. As your parents hopefully taught you, only three things should be flushed down the toilet: #1, #2 and toilet paper.

So, if you are that aspiring attorney looking to retire in Hawaii (which has also struggled with wet wipes in their sewers), start the ball rolling now. Or contact the wastewater officials who have started their own lawsuits and get a piece of the action. Because our cities should not have to deal with a problem launched by companies that want to reap all of the profits from these products, but none of the responsibility for the mess they have made.

Image credit: 1) Cottonelle.com 2) Leon Kaye

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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