The problem with wipes: why you should never flush them
Misinformation causes problems. In the sewerage industry, nowhere is this more evident than the misinformation swirling around about whether wipes of any variety are suitable for flushing down the toilet. Our advice is clear – wipes should never, ever be flushed.
Sewer issues caused by wipes may be a recent phenomenon, but wipes now account for around half of the sewer abuse incidents in the UK. Wipes have become the go-to product for numerous cleaning functions. We use them for babies, make-up removal, appliance cleaning, and floor cleaning. We carry wet wipes in our bags to clean our hands with and, more often than our sewers can handle, these wipes are flushed down the toilet.
One of the most dangerous purveyors of misinformation about wipes are the manufacturers and marketers themselves. No company will want to position themselves as a business with a complete disregard for the environmental consequences of flushing wipes. So, instead, they market them as flushable and biodegradable, ostensibly absolving the user of any responsibility for disposing of wipes into the sewer. After all, if they’re biodegradable, what’s the problem?
Biodegradable doesn’t mean that wipes magically disintegrate the moment they hit the sewer. They take months to decompose, mainly due to the artificial fibres and plastics used within them. While these wipes are waiting to decompose, they cause blockages and other issues.
Wipes join forces with those other great enemies of healthy sewers – fat, oil and grease – to congeal in your drains. The cost of dealing with these issues are found in increased water rates, but also in personal expenditure such as drain services and clean-up costs. It’s much safer for your home and your purse if you dispose of these wipes properly.
When wipes are flushed and cause blockages, someone must address the problem. This leads to Thames Water, for example, spending £1 million every month to clear up to 7,000 blockages from the sewers they maintain. The figures in the North West for United Utilities are even more alarming, with £20 million spent each year to address 53,000 blockages, half of which are caused by flushed wipes and food fat.
The problems with wipes spread far beyond your own back garden. Rats will use them to make their nests, encouraging the growth of the rodent population within the sewers. These wipes also make their way onto our beaches. In 2015, the Great British Beach Clean organised by the Marine Conservation Society, discovered nearly 4,000 wipes in the areas they tackled. That adds up to almost 50 wipes littering every kilometre of beach they cleaned, and there are 12,500km of coastline in the UK. The prospects are grim.
Don’t be seduced into believing that these so-called ‘flushable’ wipes don’t cause issues in your drains and our sewers. The simple step of disposing of them in a bin can help reduce the damage caused by our national love affair with wipes.