How Bad for Plumbing Are Disposable Wipes?

Don't flush these.  Photo: Basykes/flickrAre disposable wipes bad for plumbing? Is the sky blue? To plumbers and sewer treatment personnel, the answers here are equally obvious. Disposable wipes are designed to get past your toilet, but that’s where the bigger problems can start—in your home’s main sewer drain and at the city’s treatment facility. And don’t even think about flushing down regular baby wipes or household cleaning wipes.

The Proof is in the Plug

If you browse plumbing industry chat rooms online (which makes for a great night in, by the way), you’ll see the word “softball” comes up a lot in describing clogs created by dozens of disposable wipes. Due to the extra time involved, extracting these plugs from home drain pipes can be very costly. And it’s not just house drains that are getting clogged. Many cities report significant increases in sewage system clogs related to flushable wipes and recommend that residents keep them out of the toilet. A number of American cities have made it illegal to flush the wipes, placing them high on the list of “debris” that makes up the largest category of backups for their sewage systems.

What Does Flushable Mean?

This, it turns out, is a very good question. Flushable wipes are indeed flushable, just as a box of donuts and a case of Slim Jims are “edible.” But just because you can get them down doesn’t mean they’re good for your system. While manufacturers of disposable wipes have tested their products in labs, the true test of how they affect plumbing takes place in the real world, where you have real people flushing way more than the recommended “one or two wipes per flush” and you have sewage pipes and equipment that don’t always work like a laboratory simulation. 

The question comes down to how quickly a flushable product breaks down in water. In 2009, Consumer Reports tested many of the leading brands of toilet paper and flushable wipes and concluded that all of the wipes completely failed the disintegration test, while even the strongest, thickest toilet papers squeaked by with a low passing grade. Flushable? Yes. Dissolvable? Not really, at least not enough to prevent significant clogs in many sewage channels. Consumer Reports recommends that users of wipes should dispose of them in the trash instead of the toilet.

Lessons from the Septics

Anyone with a septic system knows that you have to baby these mini sewage treatment plants—no drain cleaners, no Kleenex, no nothing other than toilet paper. Many city sewage professionals (and city budget planners) would love it if people on municipal systems would model their flushing habits after the septic folks. In other words, if it’s not safe for a septic system, it shouldn’t be flushed into a city system, either. So, are disposable wipes bad for septic systems? Is the sky blue?

Philip Schmidt writes for

Updated March 4, 2018.

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