Are Biodegradable Wipes Flushable?

 

    The sad reality is most wipes are not flushable, even if the label says it is. A few facts:


    • 90% of wet wipes contain synthetic fibers or plastics
    • Wipes that advertise as biodegradable and compostable wipes are intended to breakdown over longer periods of time, they are were not designed to be flushed
    • Most wipes that advertise as being "flushable" or "plumber approved" do not meet dispersibility standards suitable to break down quickly enough in water 
    • In most cases, it is best practice to toss your wipes in a waste bin, not in the toilet


    What does “biodegradable” mean?

    When something is biodegradable, that means it breaks down over time. Little microorganisms (like bacteria) eat away at it, and it disappears entirely. Sometimes biodegradation can take years, and sometimes it can take centuries.

    Biodegradable vs. compostable vs. recyclable

    Some wipes are biodegradable. Others are compostable. Some packaging is recyclable. Let’s dig into each one and discover the differences between them.


    Biodegradable wipes

    Biodegradable wipes break down over time with the help of bacteria and other organisms. However, some wipes break down faster than others.  


    Compostable wipes

    Compostable wipes also break down over time with the help of microorganisms. But there’s a special difference. As compostable wipes break down, they release nutrients that plants love. So composting is like biodegradation, but with a special benefit. 


    Recyclable wipes

    Most wipes cannot be recycled for two reasons. One, most wipes are made with synthetic fibers that simply can’t be reused. Two, once biological materials get on wipes, they can no longer be recycled. In rare cases where wipes are packaged in a recycle-friendly plastic material, the packaging can be recycled. If the packaging contains multiple types of plastic, they must be separated or it will be destined for a landfill. Sadly, the large majority of wipes packaging is not recycled. 

    What are wet wipes made of?

    Not all flushable wet wipes are identical. Some brands hold themselves to higher standards than others. It's important to check the label; equally important to look for what is not on the label.  The International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG) is a group of passionate water professionals seeking to provide clear guidance on what should and shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet to protect customers, wastewater systems, their workers, and the environment. Wipes that are approved by the IWSFG are certified to be safe to flush in low quantity in toilets with access to sewage systems. If a wipe does not have IWSFG on the label, it is best to do your research as many can cause plumbing blockages which can be expensive to fix. 


    In general, many of the big-name brands are using substrates that do not break down efficiently. Sadly "flushable" and "plumber approved" does not necessarily mean the product is safe to flush. 


    Again, 90% of wipes contain synthetic fibers that do not break down. While these wipes may advertise as 'plant-based' and contain natural material like wood pulp, cotton, etc, they’re actually mixed with materials that never break down (bad for you...great for plumbers).


    This is usually the case whether it’s listed on the back of the container or not. And those synthetic fibers are usually in the plastic family. For example:

    • Polypropylene
    • Polyester
    • Polyethylene

    Depending on the type of wipe you use, it may have different ingredients. For example, what’s inside a baby wipe is different from what’s inside a disinfecting wipe.

    What happens when biodegradable wipes go down the drain?

    What happens when biodegradable wipes go down the drain?

    When you flush a wipe (whether it’s biodegradable or not), it typically disappears down the drain, easy right?  Sadly not the case, what you don’t see is that plumbing pipes under and around the building have 45-degree elbows.

    So when a wipe gets flushed and hits one of those angles, it often gets stuck. Over time, they start forming a bigger and bigger clog because they don’t travel to the sewer line. And even if those wipes make it to the sewer, they can lead to huge pipe blockages there, too. Either way, flushable wipes lead to plumbing issues — it’s usually only a matter of time.

    Not to mention, flushable wet wipes can cause wastewater equipment damage. Wipes catch on impellers and this leads to pump breakdowns. This is why so many wastewater treatment plant operators ask residents to not flush wipes. Even if they’re labeled as flushable or biodegradable.

    Compostable and biodegradable wipes can and do break down. But sewers and wastewater treatment centers don’t have the ideal conditions for this.

    How to dispose of biodegradable wipes

    In general, wet wipes should be disposed of in the trash can or waste bin — not down the drain. This includes biodegradable wipes, compostable wipes, cotton face cloth wipes, and so on. If you are going to use a "flushable wipe", make sure it meets the dispersibility standards set forth by the IWSFG. 

    Try keeping a separate waste bin in the bathroom to collect used wet wipes. This keeps your recyclable waste separate from your non-recyclable. And it prevents serious pipe blockages and sewer blockages down the line. Check out our "How to dispose of flushable wipes" article for more information.

    Flushable wipes FAQ

    Are flushable toilet wipes biodegradable?

    Some flushable wipes are biodegradable, and others aren’t. Check the label to find out whether they’re biodegradable. And regardless of whether they’re biodegradable or not, don’t flush them. Instead, toss them in a separate waste bin.


    Are flushable wipes compostable?

    Some flushable wipes are compostable, yes. But not all of them are. Look for labels that indicate they’re compostable or eco friendly flushable wipes. This usually means you can compost your used wipes instead of flushing them.


    Are flushable wipes degradable?

    Flushable wipes are degradable (they can break down chemically). This is because some plastics have special chemicals to help them crumble over time.


    Are biodegradable baby wipes flushable?

    Even if containers say wipes are flushable, it’s a better idea to dispose of them in a separate waste bin instead. This prevents plumbing issues, sewer blockages, and other water waste issues.


    Do biodegradable wipes decompose in landfills?

    Biodegradable wipes can decompose in landfills. But sometimes it takes a long time to break down because the landfill conditions aren’t ideal.

    Summary: Flushable biodegradable wipes

    Wet wipes are great when it comes to personal hygiene, taking care of your baby, and more. But when it’s time to get rid of them, it’s tough to know what to do. Here’s a quick recap of what to do:

    • Put flushable wipes in a waste bin (and avoid flushing)
    • Biodegradable and compostable wipes don’t break down easily in sewers
    • Flushing wipes can cause sewer and plumbing blockages


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