eIn English, the term is stronger: we are talking about “washable” wipes, which indicates that they can be safely emptied into the toilet bowl. However, a quick Google search reveals that many media outlets, both in English and French, have regularly questioned this claim for years.
Disposable wipes are mainly made from paper pulp that can be treated in multiple ways to strengthen it: for example, by using certain polymers as a binder and by creating supportive tissues by adding fibers. Toilet paper is created differently. Small pieces of wood are cooked with certain chemicals, resulting in wood pulp that forms the basis of the paper along with the water.
There are many environmental concerns about the use of these supposedly “toilet” wipes. Topping the list is the concern that the plastics they contain are ending up in waterways. Because there’s already plastic: Although manufacturers generally don’t disclose the makeup of wet wipes, a 2018 British study compared six “toilet-disposable” wipes with seven that aren’t supposed to be. Polyester, a synthetic fiber derived from petroleum, was detected in all disposable toilet tissues, while on the side of some “breakable” wipes were plastics such as high-density polyethylene. These synthetic materials, which are supposed to be added to wipes to make them more durable, can degrade into microplastics that pollute the environment and can have an impact on the health of animals and humans.
In the end, what distinguishes these “one-time-use” wipes from those that are not? not much. According to a 2019 analysis of 58 types of wipes from around the world, disposable and non-disposable were similar in thickness, size, weight, and response to moisture. The authors concluded that their results support the idea that there is no difference between the different types of wipes.
Another problem is that the criteria for determining what can be flushed out of the toilet (the “flushability index”) are not clear. En 2019, une équipe de l’Université Ryerson, à Toronto, a testé à ce sujet 101 produits disponibles dans le sud de l’Ontario (incluant des lingettes et du papier de toilette), la moitié de ces produits étant vendus dans comsme Toilet. One of the criteria chosen by the researchers was dispersion, that is, the rate of product failure – an important condition for preventing tubes from clogging. Only 11 of the 101 products completely disintegrated, and all of them were toilet paper. Cleaning wipes and baby wipes don’t seem to degrade in the toilet.
In this test, one had to flush the toilet (a specially designed laboratory toilet) less than twice as often to completely get rid of toilet paper. To clean wipes, we washed them four times, sometimes more than five times for some baby wipes. The researchers concluded that other than good old toilet paper, none of the other products should end up in the toilet bowl.
It is reported that Canadian cities will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to eliminate obstructions caused mainly by handkerchiefs. This is because these popular wipes can absorb sand, mud, food residue and other products into the sewer, causing wastewater to turn into solid waste. These groups even have an English name: “fatbergs”.
Experts say that disintegrating wipes as well as toilet paper exist, but they are not yet on sale in North America. For now, it is recommended to throw the wipes in the trash. However, within a few years, it is not impossible to finally be flushed down the toilet without contributing to the formation of these Fatberg.
*This article is adapted from an English-language text by Jonathan Garry that was published on the McGill University Science and Society website.