Under the bright lights inside an underground lab at Ryerson’s urban water centre, Darko Joksimovic grabs a small box of facial wipes from a shelf. He reads a label on the box out loud: “100 per cent biodegradable.” He laughs.
“Just another source of plastics in the environment,” says Joksimovic, a civil engineer and associate professor in the department of water resources.
The wipe in question is labelled “flushable,” but when flushed it gets stuck in the lab’s toilet pipe and, after Joksimovic flushes again and again, is still intact and does not fully decompose at the end of the cycle.
It’s a scenario all too familiar for Joksimovic. Consumers in Canada and all over the world are sending wipes through sewer systems that should instead be put in garbage cans, according to a recent Ryerson study. These products are clogging pipes, which is costly for cities and damaging for the environment. Industry experts say there are hardly any government regulations to prevent manufacturers from labelling these products “flushable.”
Earlier this year Joksimovic supervised a team of fellow researchers — led by Barry Orr, a Ryerson researcher with a focus on water and sewer issues — who spent months testing the flushability and disintegration of various single-use wipes and tissues.
In the lab, they created a replica of a typical urban home’s bathroom plumbing including a toilet. Researchers would put a wipe in the bowl, flush it and observe its movement through the pipe — based on parameters from the International Water Services Flushability Group, an organization of water associations, utilities, and professionals that aims to provide clear guidance on what should and should not be flushed. There were two parts to the test: determining how easily the wipes flushed down the toilet and moved through plumbing system; and how well the product disintegrated, if at all.
Various products were tested, including baby wipes, cleaning wipes, facial tissues, cleansing wipes and diaper liners.
Their findings were disconcerting: out of 101 single-use products tested, 23 were labelled as “flushable.” None of the 23 was found to completely disintegrate and pass the flushing test, while only two partially disintegrated, according to the report. Almost all of these products, “flushable” or not, required more than one flush to clear the drain line, some needing as many as six flushes, the study found.
The results weren’t a huge surprise to the researchers, who admit there was already some indication, based on available literature, that most of these products aren’t flushing properly.
According to the study, consumer products are contributing to a growing problem: households in Canada and all over the world are experiencing increased plumbing breakdowns, municipal sewage infrastructure is overflowing and the environment is being damaged — with the debris floating in lakes and rivers.
Cynthia Finley, the director of regulatory affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies in the United States, said there’s currently nothing that regulates the use of the term “flushable” on packages of wipes or other products.
“The manufacturers do not have to pay for the problems these products can cause or contribute to in home plumbing or public sewer systems, so they have little incentive to ensure that their products are truly safe to flush,” she wrote in an email to the Star.
The same applies to Canadian market, where the absence of a legal definition of the term “flushable” leaves manufacturers at liberty to put the label on pretty much anything, said Robert Haller, executive director of Canadian Water and Wastewater Association.
The association, which was a signatory to a recent application seeking a Competition Bureau investigation into “flushable” product labelling, has been working with its American counterparts to influence the creation of stricter labelling standards. He said the application to the bureau is the first legal action in Canada to confront manufacturers.
All they ask, Haller said, is for the labelling practice to be like that in the food industry.
“If they claim a product holds one litre, it must hold one litre. If they claim it will withstand 50 pounds of pressure, it must withstand 50 pounds of pressure. We have legal definitions of what is ‘kosher’ and this must be verified by the Jewish community before such a label is permitted. The same for ‘halal’ or ‘organic.’ Who decides what is ‘vegetarian,’ the beef industry?” asked a frustrated Haller.
“That is why we feel the concept of ‘flushable’ should be determined by the municipal utility sector that is working for their communities to provide safe, clean water and protect the environment and not by the manufacturers whose only purpose is to make money.”
Finley said formal proposals to create laws about flushability have been introduced in California and Washington, D.C. American consumers affected by these issues have, in the past, filed class-action lawsuits against manufacturers and retailers, and some of them have won settlement money, she said.
Between 2010 and 2018 the city of Toronto logged about 10,000 calls per year through 311 from residences due to “sewer service line-blocks” relating to factors such as disposal of non-flushable materials down household toilets, according to data from Toronto Water.
There’s no breakdown of how many of these calls result from wipes compared to clogs from things like grease, dental floss and tree roots. There can also be storm-related sewer backups — all of which can lead to basement flooding.
Bill Shea, director of distribution and collection at Toronto Water, says maintenance and repair to blocked sewers costs the city approximately $3.5 million a year.
Nationally, that number adds up to around $250 million a year if you include costs to individual households, according to the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group, which includes small, medium and large municipal wastewater and water utilities in Ontario.
“The toilet should be used for the purpose it is intended for,” said Shea, adding the city constantly runs public education campaigns about what not to flush down the drain.
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Following the publication of the Ryerson study, Friends of the Earth Canada filed an application to the Competition Bureau calling for an investigation into manufacturers’ “flushable” labelling. The application from the grassroots group, which is part of the Friends of the Earth International network advocating for environmental protection, says that beyond “flushable” labelling, manufacturers are making claims on their packaging such as “safe for septic systems and sewers” and “fully biodegradable.”
The applications asks that if an inquiry is conducted and finds the labelling is found to be false and misleading, that companies be fined, forced to remove “flushable” labelling and publicly retract claims of flushability.
A spokesperson of the bureau cited rules of confidentiality preventing them from revealing whether an investigation is underway, but Friends of the Earth Canada CEO Beatrice Olivastri told the Star they’ve been informed the commissioner has commenced an inquiry into the matter.
Kimberly-Clark Corporation is an American wipes manufacturer whose Cottonelle Flushable Wipes and Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths were among the 23 “flushable” products tested by Ryerson researchers. The Ryerson study’s disintegration test found the Cottonelle products did better than all others by partially disintegrating, but not enough to pass Ryerson’s test.
Kimberly-Clark’s spokesperson Terry Balluck told the Star that their wipes are “absolutely compatible” with sewer and septic systems. He dismissed Ryerson’s research findings altogether.
“The bottom line is that Mr. Orr is touting conclusions that continue to be proven wrong by the data from numerous field studies of actual clogs or accumulations in municipal wastewater treatment plants,” he said.
Cottonelle wipes “use a unique and patented technology that allows them to hold together when wet in the package and during use, but immediately start to break down when flushed down a toilet,” he said, extending an invitation to the reporter to visit the company’s flushability testing lab in Wisconsin.
Last year a consumer group in Australia took the company to court for “misleading and deceptive conduct” by marketing its products as flushable.
In June the Federal Court of Australia dismissed the lawsuit and ruled in favour of Kimberly-Clark, saying there was no evidence the company’s “flushable” products had caused any harm or inflicted costs to any household or municipal sewage system. A decision on the appeal filed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is still pending.
Balluck noted the Jacksonville Electric System has publicly endorsed Cottonelle wipes as breaking down when flushed, and being compatible with the sewer system.
He cited a 2016 New York study, an evaluation of material persisting in the sewer system, that found “flushable” wipes amounted to 1.88 per cent and 1.2 per cent of recovered material in two separate locations. The bulk of material consisted of trash, paper towels and wipes not branded as flushable. The study says a “wet weather event” shortly before the study was conducted could have lowered the amount of “flushable” wipes recovered.
Balluck criticized Ryerson’s findings, which were based on the International Water Sewage Flushability Group (IWSFG) standards, and said the guidelines set by industry manufacturing groups Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) and European Disposables and Nonwoven Association (EDANA) are the only widely accepted measures.
Among other distinctions, under the IWSFG standards, a product is deemed flushable if 95 per cent of it disintegrates. For the INDA/EDANA assessment, that ratio is set at 60 per cent.
Ryerson researchers said it’s upsetting that manufacturers continue to brand their products as “flushable” without strict regulatory guidelines.
“I just do find it frustrating that there’s a marketing initiative to be able to label your product as flushable for the convenience of the consumer,” said Nick Reid, executive director of Ryerson Urban Water.
Joksimovic said he was motivated to do the Ryerson study because sewer systems having been functioning well for thousands of years, but the growth in new consumer products threatens to render these systems “useless.”
“The issue is not about stopping making these products. That may be wishful thinking,” he said, calling for better and more stringent regulations to be enforced against manufacturers on labelling products as flushable.