I know they say "Flushable" right on the package, but are they? Do they break down fast enough to not cause problems in septic/sewer systems?
INDA and EDANA are industry groups representing the Nonwoven Fabrics (wipes) industry. They have defined Flushability Guidelines. The full spec is kept behind a $3000 paywall, but the Executive Summary explains:
For a product to be flushable it must:
- Clear toilets and properly maintained drainage pipe systems under expected product usage conditions;
- Be compatible with existing wastewater conveyance, treatment, reuse and disposal systems; and
- Become unrecognizable in a reasonable period of time and be safe in the natural receiving environments.
Organisations such as NSF International provide a certification service for showing your product conforms to the guidelines. Once you have been certified, you can display a "Certified Flushable" mark.
Whether a particular product that you see on the shelves is, in fact, Certified Flushable, depends on the particular brand and product.
Alternatively, the manufacturers can self-declare their compliance to the standard (for example).
In the US and Canada, if you buy wipes which say "Flushable" on the package, you normally should never flush them. (Source.) If you do, they may clog your pipes or your local sewer / septic system. And a sewer clog may cause sewage to seep into your basement. (Source.)
OK; that was the summary. If you'd like the nitty-gritty details, please read on.
Baby wipes are cheaper and better, but are not flushable
Truly-flushable wipes must be weak enough to break down in your city's sewage system. (Source.) They're harder to find than baby wipes. (Source.) They're also more expensive, probably thinner, and probably rip more easily.
You might want to consider buying unscented baby wipes instead. When you're done, you can seal them in a plastic bag and throw them in the trash.
But, if you insist on buying flushable wipes, please read on.
The "flushable" wipes currently sold in the US should not be flushed at all
The fine print on the back of the package of one common brand of "flushable" wipes warns: "Use only one wipe per flush". (Source.) But even that warning may be insufficient.
In practice, the word "flushable" may mean that a product can pass through your toilet.
But, even if it manages to pass through your toilet, it still might not pass successfully through the drainpipe in your house or apartment. In fact, homeowners and landlords have spent significant amounts of time and money dealing with "flushable" wipes which have gotten snagged inside pipes or equipment. (Source.)
You really don't want to annoy your landlord by forcing him or her to come and fix a non-flushable toilet full of poop.
Worse yet, if your wipes cause your local municipal sewage pipes to clog, sewage might start to seep into your basement. (Source.)
An article discusses the matter. It dates back to '09, but most of it is still valid. The article writes:
"A lot of people flush Kleenex thinking that it's just like toilet paper," [official Darrell Crews] said. "But I can tell you, Kleenex doesn't break down. You can stir it, beat on it, it's just not going to break down."
It turns out that flushable wipes don't break down either, Crews said.
"Some of them disintegrated a little bit, but a little bit is not good enough," he said. "If it doesn't break down like toilet paper, you probably shouldn't flush it."
Are there any wipes you can flush?
The official quoted above used the phrase "break down like toilet paper". But I don't know what he meant. Maybe he meant "break down just like toilet paper, except slower". Or maybe he meant "break down as fast as toilet paper". Because we don't want to clog your home's pipes, let's be conservative and assume the latter.
Fine. A few years ago, a New Jersey official did some experiments. Back then, he found that the only wipes which disintegrate as quickly as toilet paper were the flushable wipes made by Haso. But, as of May '17, their American subsidiary (Haso USA) isn't fully up and running yet.
The Swedish research
There was some more-recent research done in Sweden. Take a look at the table of results at the bottom of page 17 of "Wipes in the Pipes". The wipes which meet the proposed "GD4 WW" criteria are the least-bad choices.
You 'll want to choose a wipe which won't get stuck or cause accumulation in your home's pipes or your city's sewage pumps. So you should choose a wipe which passes the international wastewater industry's "GD4 WW" criteria for flushability (average pump power-draw increase <1%). (Source.) Even when soaked for only 30 minutes. (Source.)
The least-bad choice would be to choose wipes made of "SafeFlush" substrate. But even these take 60 minutes to disperse well. (Source.) They're still not an ideal choice.
So, in practice, if you buy your "flushable" wipes in the US, you shouldn't flush them. You should throw them in the garbage.
Most "flushable" wipes sold in the US might not be very flushable at all.
The least-bad substrate currently available in the US is the "SafeFlush" substrate. (It's found in Cottonelle adult wipes, Scott adult wipes, and Pull-Ups toddler wipes.) But it's still best not to flush it.
Haso and Aralar both make substrates which are more dispersible. I don't think these substrates are yet sold in America. Let's wait until they are; then we can investigate and see whether or not they'll dissolve sufficiently in 30 minutes to meet the "GD4 WW" criteria. It looks like they will. (Source.)
For now, it's best to throw all your wipes in the trash.
This website from ThamesWater (a water management company in UK) states that they are not flushable, and even shows you why.
Other sources tell the same story:
This BBC story says that no wipes tested so far have passed the UK water industry tests.