Study Shows 'Flushable' Wipes Don't Disperse in Sewer Systems

If Miami-Dade's recent troubles with 'flushable' wipes aren't proof enough, a study our of Ryerson Urban Water claims none of the wipes they tested break down properly in a sewer

Study Shows 'Flushable' Wipes Don't Disperse in Sewer Systems

Ryerson researcher Barry Orr holds up a build-up of non-flushable wipes retrieved from a wastewater collection plant.

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So-called flushable wipes are in the news again — this time clogging the sewer system in Miami-Dade (Florida) Water and Sewer Department.

A sewer inspection technician named Jose Valladares recently showed CBS4 News camera footage of how bad blockages have become.

“The grease, the wipes they throw down the toilet, that’s what they create when you put that all together,” says Valladares. “It adds up, like I said, the rags.”

He claims 18 years ago when he started the job, crews only had to unclog one pipe at a time on a monthly basis. These days, it’s often three times a week, and it’s a job that takes about five hours.

The clogs in Miami are just one example of an ongoing problem Ryerson University thrust into the limelight with a study titled Defining “Flushability” for Sewer Use. Ryerson’s Flushability Lab at Ryerson Urban Water tested 101 single-use products — of which 23 were labeled “flushable” by the manufacturer — against rigorous flushability criteria and found that not one single wipe was able to disperse safely through its sewer system test.

“This research confirms conclusively what those of us in the industry already knew ― that single-use wipes, including cleansing and diaper wipes — cannot be safely flushed, even those labeled as ‘flushable,’” says report lead Barry Orr, master’s student in Environmental Applied Science and Management and 25-year veteran sewer outreach and control inspector with the City of London, Ontario.

“Manufacturers need to be regulated to properly label products, so that residents can make informed decisions that can save money, protect infrastructure and the environment by properly disposing of wipes in the garbage.”

To test the flushability of the samples, the researchers created a working model of the average home’s plumbing system from toilet to sewer, including the bends and slope, plus average water pressure typical of urban infrastructure. Each wipe was then tested to the wastewater industry’s specifications for toilet and drainline clearance plus disintegration. The report findings showed that none of the wipe samples fell apart or dispersed enough to safely pass through the sewer system without a risk of clogging or causing damage to infrastructure.

Improper disposal of these single-use products has huge impacts not only on individual residences, but also on municipalities. Between 2010 and 2018, the city of Toronto logged nearly 10,000 calls per year from residences due to “sewer service line-blocks” relating to factors such as disposal of nonflushable materials down household toilets.

Sewer overflow area showing evidence of nonflushable material collecting near a natural water environment.
Sewer overflow area showing evidence of nonflushable material collecting near a natural water environment.

In addition, the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group has estimated that $250 million is spent annually across Canada for operations and maintenance related to the removal of blockages from equipment, due to the flushing of wipes and other non-flushable materials.

Many of these wipes also contain synthetic fibers, including plastics, which can make their way into waterways, harming water systems and wildlife. This occurs most often when clogged municipal infrastructure leads to overflows and spillage into local waterways.

“Defining ‘Flushability’ for Sewer Use clearly highlights the need for a legislated standard definition around the term ‘flushable’ that ensures a product is safe to be disposed of down the toilet,” says Orr. “This will in turn lead to imposing stricter regulations for the labeling of products. The current practice is misleading consumers and creating harm on so many levels. This study is an important step towards regulating manufacturers to change their packaging.”

Orr’s research was supervised by Darko Joksimovic, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering. The Ryerson Flushability Lab is part of Ryerson Urban Water, housed at the Centre for Urban Innovation. Ryerson Urban Water is a multidisciplinary collective of experts whose research provides cost-effective solutions that support a healthy urban water cycle while promoting innovation in water education across societal boundaries.

“This important new research out of Ryerson Urban Water exemplifies the unintended consequences that can result from everyday actions taken by individuals and organizations,” says Nick Reid, executive director of Ryerson Urban Water. “Healthy cities depend on healthy urban water strategies, and we all play a vital role in this very delicate ecosystem.”


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