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Can you flush it?

Are you curious to know the difference between a flushable wipe product and a wipe product that has true flushability? Contrary to popular belief they are, indeed, two different things.

Many of us have been led to believe that “Flushable” wipes are flushable because they are safe for our septic tanks, they won’t clog our toilets, or they easily disperse in water like toilet tissue.  And if no one has ever flat out told us to believe these flushable wipe claims; we most likely assume this to be true.

So, what is the difference? We’re happy you asked.

The term “flushable” has been around since the 1980’s. Scott Paper was one of the first to market a standard latex bonded airlaid wet wipe and deem them as “flushable” because of their small size. These wipes were considered “flushable” as long as the size was small enough to transit through the toilet and waste water system. Sure the product was “flushable” but it had no flushability. Many companies after Scotts’ continued to use the same “flushable” wipe claims due to the size standard that was in place. Until recently there were no industry guidelines nor any governmental regulations or restrictions for flushable wipe products.  This was due to the lack of clarity on defining the word flushability or what was considered “flushable.” Many felt unclear; not knowing when flushing was considered an appropriate disposal mechanism. The situation caused many consumers, manufacturers, and stake-holders confusion. As a result, companies used their own definitions and methods to determine what constituted their product as a flushable wipe.

It wasn’t until these “sizably” flushable wipes started to clog the municipal sewage system that there became a need for regulation. Both the INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, as well as the European counterpart EDANA, have now put regulations in place for flushable wipes to be made up of non-woven fabrics that have actual flushability or what we like to call—truly flushable! In summer of 2009, INDA and EDANA published their very own flushability guidelines known as the Guidance Document for Assessing the Flushability of Nonwoven Consumer Products. A mouthful, I know. So it’s our job to break down the 225 page document and give you what you need to know to be a well informed, responsible consumer.

What’s a flushable wipe?

What deems a product as a truly flushable wipe? Well for starters, it should easily disintegrate when flushed. A Consumerreport.org video demonstrated what happens to a “flushable” wipe when it’s put through a disintegration test to simulate the process of flushing. The report revealed regular tissue easily disintegrating within 8 seconds but the “flushable” wipe doesn’t even begin to break up after 30 minutes. This alone is enough to cause problems for your plumbing and septic system. A truly flushable wipe is more like toilet tissue; it’s dispersible and will easily break-up, leaving your sewer and septic systems safe from clogging.

Because there is still much ambiguity surrounding the term flushable, we’ll extend our investigation. More often than not, flushable is confused with biodegradable and/or dispersible.

The guidelines define a product as flushable if it 1) clears toilets and properly maintained drainage pipe systems under expected product usage conditions; 2)are compatible with existing wastewater conveyance, treatment, reuse and disposal systems; and 3) becomes unrecognizable in a reasonable period of time and is safe in the natural receiving environments.

So how do INDA and EDANA really determine if products are flushable, more specifically a flushable wipe? Let’s break down the product flushability assessment. Flushabilty of products are determined by what happens at each stage of waste disposal. According to the Guidance Document, for a product to be considered flushable, “it must pass through the building’s toilet and drain-line system, be transported in wastewater conveyance systems, and be compatible with wastewater treatment systems where they exist, or in some regions, untreated discharges of untreated wastewater.” These are the acceptable conditions for flushable products.  A flow chart of key questions are given to manufacturers to answer in order to determine whether they are allowed use the flushable claim. This chart evaluates a products’ route post-flushing. Questions entail information concerning toilet and drainage as well as onsite treatment, municipal wastewater collection and treatment, and/or untreated wastewater discharge.

What’s in my Moist Toilet wipe?

Most moist toilet wipes on the market are made of mixtures of cellulose fibers and may be held together with a binder. The Guidance Document states that, “the fabrics are often plain but can also be patterned via hydro-entanglement treatment or mechanical embossing. The lotions used on flushable wipes are high water content solutions or emulsions. For the purpose of this example, it is assumed the wipes under consideration are made up of a blend of pulp and rayon fibers, and the fibers are held together with a binder.”

Company Responsibility

So at this point you have a pretty clear idea of what flushable is or what it is not, as well as the difference between an ordinary flushable wipe or a wipe with flushablity (what a real flushable wipe looks like). To help you, the consumer, get the flushable wipe product you’re looking for, remember it’s the company’s responsibility to provide the proper information on their packaging. They must1) clearly label all packs of personal hygiene wet wipes that are not flushable to indicate that they should be disposed of via the solid waste system, 2)communicate the appropriate disposal pathway for personal hygiene wet wipes on relevant printed and online product material, 3)encouragemanufacturers and private label producers who are not members of EDANA to comply with this code of practice, 4) encourage retailers to subscribe to this code of practice in their private label activities and where possible reinforce this at the consumer level and 5) where appropriate, support the work of stakeholders at national and local level to increase public awareness of good wastewater disposal practices.

And there you have it, everything you need to know to be a responsible consumer. Happy flushing!

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