When consumer convenience cause environmental grief, how do you change people’s habits? We look at the problems caused by ‘flushable’ wet wipes and talk to Queensland Urban Utilities about the waste industry’s education efforts.

Whether used for baby clean ups and nappy changes, cleaning floors, wiping toilet seats or cleaning hands, the super convenient products known as wet wipes are now ubiquitous in our lives.

Unfortunately, disposable wet wipes don’t disintegrate quickly like toilet paper when flushed, despite the claims of some manufacturers. This is creating enormous headaches around the world for both water utilities and householders – clogging pipes, jamming machinery and endangering wildlife.

The wet wipes problem

On its website, local utility Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU) spells out the main issues:

  • Blockages in household plumbing, potentially costing up to $1000 in plumbing bills.
  • They jam pumps and get caught in equipment at sewage treatment plants.
  • When they meet up with another nasty that’s commonly washed down the sink – cooking fat – they create the perfect combination for a blockage in the sewerage network.
  • They add to the overall cost of sewage treatment because they must be screened out, dumped in bins and trucked off to landfill – which is where they should go in the first place.

The combination of cooking oils and wet wipes is particularly bad, producing ‘fatbergs’ in sewers all over the world including beneath the streets of Brisbane. In a recent ABC New story, QUU spokesperson Michelle Cull said people needed to think at the sink, to use the rubbish bin to get rid of food scraps and oils.

“One in four people wash cooking oils down the kitchen sink…and when it cools it solidifies in the pipes,” she said. “They either form a ball or a blockage or they line the inside surface of the pipe and extend many metres long.”

QUU has also outlined the surprisingly high annual volumes and costs to the business caused by wet wipes each year:

  • 160 tonnes (20 million wet wipes) removed from their sewerage network
  • 4000 blockages cleared
  • $1.5 million spent on responding to sewer breaks and blockages
  • $400,000 spent annually on disposing of the rubbish from sewage treatment plants.

Multiply those volumes and costs to an international scale and it’s clear that this is a global problem that needs co-ordinated action.

‘Flushable’ is not flushable

Despite labelling by some brands as ‘flushable’, not one manufacturer has yet produced a wet wipe that completely disintegrates within a few minutes like toilet paper.

While some brands in Australia have recently removed such messaging from their packaging after pressure from the waste industry, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently taking action against manufacturer Kimberly-Clark for continuing to make these ‘flushable’ claims on its Kleenex wet wipe products.

The ACCC action stemmed from a complaint lodged by consumer group Choice, whose tests in 2015 found the Kleenex wipes were intact after 20 hours, while toilet paper dissolved in a few minutes. Subsequent tests by Choice on a new Kleenex product still found that the wipes did not break down enough to avoid being a hazard in sewage systems.

Self-regulation has so far produced poor outcomes. According to a story in The Atlantic, a self-regulating industry standard created by the North American trade organisation the Association of Nonwoven Fabric Industries (INDA) for ‘flushability’ has been a demonstrated failure. The INDA standard’s many critics such as the City of Wyoming have found that the seven ‘flushability’ tests fail to simulate real-life conditions in a sewer system where wet wipes often reached a sewage pump in a couple of minutes.

While INDA dismisses the criticism and keeps quoting its own standard as a defence, some of its members are now facing legal action. Similar to the ACCC action here in Australia, multiple lawsuits are being filed by government bodies, agencies and industry groups in the United States over use of the word ‘flushable.’

Don’t flush that: educating the public

Australian utilities are certainly not waiting around for the wet wipes manufacturers to act. QUU is working towards a solution on two fronts: industry action and consumer education.

QUU’s Michelle Cull says they’re among many utilities to sign up to an industry position on ‘flushable’ products through the peak body Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA). The statement calls for all wipes to be clearly marked as ‘Do Not Flush’ until there is an agreed standard.

On the education front, QUU is using multiple channels to reach consumers with its ‘Don’t Flush That’ and ‘Only Flush the 3 P’s’ messaging.

“Unfortunately a lot of people just aren’t aware of the damage wet wipes, hygiene products and other ‘unflushables’ can do to not only our sewerage network but to their household plumbing. Our message is simple:  only flush the 3 P’s – pee, poo and paper. We spread the ‘Don’t Flush’ word mainly through our low cost digital channels.”

One example targeted at families is ‘The Rolls’ videos on YouTube and Facebook featuring a puppet family of toilet rolls. The vids make family education on the issue light-hearted and fun while highlighting pain points such as big plumbing bills caused by wipes clogging sewage pipes. Other channels include signage in public bathrooms, digital billboard ads and demonstrations at events such as the Green Heart Fair and the Brisbane EKKA.

What are consumers responding to?

“We’ve found the key to changing behaviour is making sure the message is simple and has a clear call to action,” says Michelle Cull. “We also receive a positive response when the message in the same place as our audience. For example, the ‘Don’t Flush’ messages on the back of toilet doors.”

The results have been encouraging. In a QUU customer research survey from March 2017, four in five respondents who had seen our ‘Don’t Flush That’ material said they had stopped flushing wet wipes labelled ‘flushable’ down the toilet.

“We’ve received high levels of engagement on our social media platforms,” she adds. “Our most shared post on social media was a video on our Facebook page featuring one of our treatment plant operators showing the damage wet wipes cause. It was watched over 150,000 times and shared by over 3000 people.”

The future

In a very short time, the convenience of wet wipes has seen them become a popular consumer product and sales have grown exponentially in the last five years.

This growth shows no signs of slowing: according to a 2015 study from Smithers Apex, cleaning and disinfecting wipes market was projected to grow globally at an annual average growth rate of 7.2% to $3 billion by 2020.

So it is understandable that the response from water utilities has been so vigorous. By educating the public about disposal and changing behaviours now, they are not only helping solve a current problem but preventing an unmanageable avalanche of wipe-induced problems in our plumbing, sewers and waterways in the future.