Flushability of Wipes in the Cleaning Products Industry

Smithers: There is a lot of confusion around the flushability of wipes.  Can you walk me through what’s happening in the industry regarding wipes and septic systems?

Dave Rousse: Wipes are a very important element of the overall cleaning products domain, and in the world of wipes we have two serious and related issues developing that cleaning products brand owners need to be aware of, and get ahead of.  

  1. New developments in the area of flushable and non-flushable wipes  and
  2. The Emerging war on plastics

There is an intersection there – since  wipes are made of nonwoven fabrics, and many nonwovens are made from  plastic materials.  All of this will be an interesting discussion as we talk about the threats, the facts, and the narrow path moving forward.

Smithers: Can you tell me more about the flushability of wipes?

Dave Rousse: About 4 years ago, I spoke at the Cleaning Products conference about the flushability of wipes, and the issue has come a long way since.  The issue is that there are a lot of wipes that get flushed down the toiled that shouldn’t be.  We’re talking about baby wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, makeup removal wipes and disinfecting wipes.  You can imagine any wipe that is  used in a bathroom setting will  usually end up in the trash can or the toilet bowl.  There are also the  baby wipes which are designed to be rolled up in diapers and thrown in solid waste, not flushed.  But too many people use baby wipes and flush them and that’s causing a major  problem as well. 

The intersection with the plastics issue is this.  The non-flushable wipes (baby wipes, hard surface cleaning wipes, makeup removal wipes, etc.) are made with thermoplastic materials.  The overall concern  with plastics in the environment. and single use products and the desire to reduce, to recycle more, to reengineer so that the plastics can be recycled more readily, is going to affect the wipes business.

Flushable wipes have to be singled out from that. Flushable wipes are not made from plastics. They are made from tree-based fibers. In order to pass the flushability test, they have to be made of cellulose materials that degrade in the wastewater treatment environment. 

Part of my talk will be to clarify the misunderstanding about  wipes  designed to be flushed and behave appropriately, and  those that are not designed to be flushed but do get flushed inappropriately, and how these relate to the plastics issue.

Smithers: What is causing the problem?

Dave Rousse: The problem manifests itself in the wastewater treatment system.  There are 17,000 wastewater operators in the US.  They look and see a clog in the system,  this massive “ragging”, but can’t identify what the products are because they’re discolored but they can see that some of them are wipes.

Then when they  go to the store, they see that some wipes are labeled as flushable.   So they conclude that  those flushable wipes are causing the problem.  They don’t consider that it’s the non-flushable wipes that are causing the problem –  that it’s the non-flushable wipes (baby wipes, cleaning wipes, etc.) that get inappropriately flushed.

Flushable wipes cannot be labeled as flushable unless they pass the 7 tests that validate the physical properties needed for that wipe to degrade appropriately after it’s flushed. We have a pump test, a disintegration test, a biodegradability test, and certain tests to make sure it sinks, not floats, to make sure that it will get through septic systems and will not clog the pipes. It’s a pretty serious battery of tests.  And only when they pass all of those tests can they be labeled as flushable.  The FTC is very well aware of this issue.  The FTC makes sure that any  performance claim on the package  is backed up by the science.  So, flushable wipes can be flushed.  It is the non-flushable wipes that are the problem.

Smithers: How does this relate to the EU actions?

Dave Rousse: First, the EU did not ban wipes.  There are many single use disposable plastic items that they are targeting (stirrers, plastic tableware, straws, etc.)  For wipes, they didn’t say that they’re going to ban them, but the EU is going to introduce the  concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which is essentially a tax. You put a tax on something (the manufacturer) when they sell a product and that tax is meant to be used to collect and properly dispose of these materials after they’ve been sold and used.

The manufacturer right now is not able to control the ultimate end life of these products.  For wipes, the issue is going to be one of the extended producer tax.  They won’t be banned –there was some press about them being banned, but it was retracted 3 days later.  Regardless it’s still an issue because most wipes are made of polypropylene  or polyethylene or polyester that are targets of the war on plastics and we have to deal with that.

Smithers: How is the industry responding to the situation and while it’s become public news in the EU, do you see this coming down the line in the US?

Dave Rousse: I really think it’s going to come into the US.  There are many industries starting to study all of the relevant facts around this very important issue.  It is multi-faceted. There is no single solution. And here at INDA, we’re preparing position papers on this. So my intent at the conference is to lay out what some of the facets of the issues are and what we think is a responsible path forward.  But there has to be a realization that there is no single solutions with this.  For example, recycling is often thought to be the best mode  in a circular economy for dealing with these things.  But only about 33 – 35% of plastics can be recycled while the rest need to be dealt with in a different matter.  Material science, sorting technology and alternative materials to plastics will all play an important role in this.

I envision that package designers will start to incorporate more paper in the future than what they are today. Paper used to be a main element in packaging but then it  moved  to plastics.  I anticipate paper, even paper laminated to a film, will become a more desirable packaging design in the future. This is one of the ways to reduce the volume of plastic in the environment.

Smithers: What are you most excited about regarding your participation at the Cleaning Products event?

Dave Rousse: To clarify some of the misconceptions about flushability and to start the dialogue about the responsible use of plastics.  I am also excited about the ability to get our message out to the leading brand owners of  some of the leading wipes so we can begin working together towards a solution.