The battle over what it means to be “flushable”
Around the end of high school, Sean Riley got hooked on using wet wipes as toilet paper. He first encountered them at a friend’s house on the back of the toilet, and decided to give them a try. “It’s just a totally different feeling,” he says. “You see what you were leaving behind.”
When he moved into an apartment in Chicago with his three best friends after college, Riley stocked wet wipes in the bathroom. It didn’t take long for the guys to have what he calls “the conversation”: They all admitted they were addicted. Once they felt that moist rub, they couldn’t turn back to the brittle chafe of toilet paper. They made a trip to Sam’s Club together to buy wet wipes in bulk.
Then they had a second conversation. What if they started a business? What if they created a wet wipe that young men, like themselves, could purchase without feeling embarrassed? “That was when we started looking at the market,” Riley says. “Where is the flushable wipes market at right now? Where is it going?”
The company is a rising star in the flushable wet-wipe world, a multi-billion-dollar industry that took off in the mid-2000s, when companies like Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble repackaged traditional baby wipes as luxurious adult toilet paper, pre-soaked and cut-down small enough to flush down a toilet. In 2015, personal wet-wipe sales reached an estimated $2.2 billion.
Dude Wipes has made a name for itself by using clever and humorous marketing. The company posts a never-ending stream of potty-themed jokes on social media, such as the faux-launch of a limited-edition Pumpkin Spice scent. Riley, now 31, refers to himself as the “Chief Executive Dude.” Collectively, the owners call themselves “the AmbASSadors.”
Riley believes that his friends’ camaraderie and sense of humor give Dude Wipes its competitive edge. People seem to agree. In 2013, Dude Wipes won the Nonwovens Industry Visionary Award, an industry-wide honor for the year’s most exciting new product. In 2015, after the AmbASSadors appeared on TV show Shark Tank, the billionaire Mark Cuban became an investor and partner in the company. Dude Wipes is stocked at national chains like Kroger, Meijer, and Target.
But lawsuits are now popping up across the country over use of the word “flushable.” Sewerage authorities claim that flushable wet wipes don’t break apart, and, as a result, are destroying municipal sewer systems. The wipes cluster with congealed food fat to form large blockages known as fatberg—a portmanteau of fat and iceberg. Last year, a 10-ton lump was removed from the London sewer system at a cost of £400,000. Cases have also been reported in Newcastle, Sydney, San Francisco, Miami, New York City, Toronto, and Washington, D.C.
In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission pulled a wet wipe by the brand Nice-Pak off the market. Sewerage authorities hope that more regulation is imminent. Dude Wipes, for its part, claims that its wipes are biodegradable and have been tested by “scientist and doctor dudes.” Are those claims true? Can wet wipes be stopped? Or must cities resign themselves to a future of fatberg?
Wyoming, Minnesota, is one of the first American cities to take on the flushable-wet-wipe industry. In 2015, the city filed a class-action suit against Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Nice-Pak, and three other wet-wipe manufacturers for fraudulently promoting their products as flushable.
Dave Torma, a public-works employee in Wyoming, says that the problem picked up in the early 2000s and has gotten worse over the years. After wet wipes are flushed, they exit a house through a lateral pipe that connects to a public sewer system, where sewage pumps ensure that the wastewater flows in the correct direction. But unlike toilet paper, wet wipes fail to disintegrate. They clog the pumps, causing them to break down and redirect stagnant wastewater back toward houses. Sewer systems must be shut down so that the wipes can be manually removed. When the four-foot pumps are lifted for maintenance, “it looks like you’re pulling up Cousin It,” Torma says.
In 2008, the industry standard for use of the word “flushable” for wet wipes and other nonwoven products was created by the North American trade organization the Association of Nonwoven Fabric Industries, also known as INDA. As of 2013, to be labeled “flushable,” a wet wipe must pass seven tests that evaluate its ability to disintegrate, biodegrade, and clear household and municipal sewer lines. But there is no penalty or fine if a wet-wipe manufacturer doesn’t comply. The industry is self-regulated, without government oversight.
According to the City of Wyoming, INDA’s seven “flushability” tests fail to simulate real-life conditions in a sewer system. One test, the “slosh box” disintegration test, for example, places a wipe in a tank filled with two liters of water that rocks back and forth for 3 hours. The fibers that remain must then be able to pass through a 12.5-millimeter sieve. But a wet wipe often reaches a sewage pump in a couple of minutes, wastewater officials argue. And many sewer systems are not nearly as hard on the wipe as the agitation test. In 2013, Consumer Reports conducted an independent agitation test that none of the leading four wet wipes (Charmin, Scott, Cottonelle, and Equate) could pass. The wipes also failed to break apart after being beaten for 10 minutes in a kitchen stand mixer on the lowest speed.
Dave Rousse, the president of INDA, claims that the flushability tests are satisfactory and that the industry sufficiently regulates itself. He says that INDA calls companies whose wipes don’t pass the seven tests and informs them that their product can no longer be labeled flushable. While he sympathizes with Wyoming’s sewage maintenance problem, he considers their lawsuit “misguided.” Their problem, he contends, is caused by consumers flushing baby wipes—which, unlike the new wave of adult wet wipes, are still meant to be thrown in the garbage—and other non-flushable products like tampons, dental floss, and condoms.
In July, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Nice-Pak, and the three other wet-wipe manufactures named in the suit requested that the City of Wyoming save and archive all of its clogged sewage for 180 days to be used as evidence. This would amount to collecting and storing hundreds of tons of raw sewage. Last week, the judge ruled that Wyoming must collect, photograph, and videotape a third of all its sewage clogs over the 180-day span, but that it could dispose of the sewage after seven days.
Wyoming is not alone; sewerage authorities across the country are frustrated with INDA’s flushable standard. In 2012, wastewater associations like the Water Environment Federation tried to work with INDA to establish a new, more rigorous standard, but INDA didn’t show a working draft to them until two weeks before publication at the World of Wipes conference in 2013. The sewerage authorities were dismayed to find that the pass/fail criteria was two to three times more lenient than it had been in the previous guidelines, published in 2009.
“It’s become clear that the manufacturers are not the people that should be telling us what is acceptable and not acceptable in our sewer systems,” says Rob Villee, the executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority, in New Jersey.
Villee estimates that wet wipes are costing billions of dollars a year in worldwide maintenance. “This is an international problem,” he says. “This isn’t the United States, this isn’t Canada. It’s England. It’s Spain. It’s Australia. It’s Israel, France.”
The international wastewater community, which consists of 15 countries, including the Netherlands, Turkey, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom, has given up on working with INDA and its European counterpart, EDANA. These countries started working together in 2015, when the International Standards Organization (ISO), a non-government market agency, decided to create an international standard for “flushable.” They were afraid that if they did not band together, INDA and EDANA would once again dictate the terms. The presidents of the various associations email regularly and speak on weekly conference calls.
In September, British environmental groups and waste companies publicly condemned wet wipes. Wessex Water, a sewerage company that serves Southwest England, led the charge, reporting that of the 13,000 blockages they unclog every year, two-thirds are caused by wet wipes. They were also the first to publish a newly agreed-upon International Wastewater Position Statement, which calls for a ban on commercial use of the word “flushable.” The Position Statement advocates that only the “3Ps”—pee, poo, and toilet paper—be flushed. Wastewater authorities from the other 15 countries officially signed on.
The international wastewater community is now trying to hash out its own flushable standard, with the hope that ISO will adopt it as the international market standard and that the Federal Trade Commission will adopt it as a Green Guide flushable rule. Green Guide rules allow the government to regulate and fine companies for misleading consumers about environmental claims. (The FTC declined to comment on any policy-related questions or to discuss if the wet-wipe industry is currently under review.)
Preventing wet wipes from blocking sewers is just one part of the wet-wipe problem. The wipes also might pose environmental risks, because they’re made from plastics and synthetic cellulosic fibers, some of which are non-degradable. Once flushed, these plastics disintegrate into microplastics, a type of debris that is smaller than five millimeters in length. The particles cluster in aquatic environments with microplastics from other consumer products, such as some cleansers, exfoliants, and toothpastes.
Richard Thompson, a marine biology professor and a director of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, believes that wet-wipe microplastics essentially behave like all other microplastics, which have been proven to transport chemicals to wildlife and to harm marine invertebrates. They have also contributed to such environmental disasters as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “Part of the picture is assessing the environmental concern and weighing it against the societal benefit,” he says. House paint, for example, contains lead, which poses an environmental concern. But house paint stays on a house for years, whereas a wet wipe is discarded right after use. “To me, [wet wipes are] away from what I’d consider the center-stage direction for responsible use of plastics in society as we go forward,” Thompson says.
Not much is currently known about the environmental effects of synthetic cellulosic fibers. Each wet-wipe product is made from a different combination of them, and they all biodegrade at different speeds and have different rates of emission. It will take some time to test all of the various synthetic fibers, and assess how many non-degradable particles they contribute to the aquatic environment. As a conservative position, the wastewater industry does not believe synthetic fibers should be used until more is known. The International Wastewater Position Statement, meanwhile, claims that no product made from plastics or regenerated cellulose should ever be flushed down the toilet.
Last August, Dude Wipes failed to pass a field test conducted by the city of Vancouver, Washington. Fourteen different brands of flushable wet wipes were labeled, soaked for a half-hour, then flushed down an 8-inch sewer line. The wastewater engineering team retrieved the Dude Wipes in the city sewer system 3330 feet away from the drop point, along with seven other brands, fully intact.
Villee, the Plainfield sewerage authority director, has personally tested Dude Wipes, as well. “They’re not the worst product,” he says. “I’d probably say they’re kind of in the middle of the pack somewhere.”
“They are, under certain conditions and temperatures, [but] I don’t think those are the conditions and temperatures that they’re exposed to in the wastewater system,” Villee says. He calls this the “disingenuous part” of the biodegradable label. “Yeah, they’re biodegradable, but when? Ten years from now?”
Last month, Dude Wipes released a new version of its flushable wet wipe, which, according to Riley, now is 100 percent biodegradable and free of microplastics. (The company gets its scientific information from INDA president Rousse, independent consultants, and the science and doctor dudes who work at the product’s manufacturing plant.)
Riley scoffs at the notion that the INDA standard is too industry-friendly. He says that a Dude Wipes prototype once failed INDA’s flushability test, and the AmbASSadors worked hard to ensure that it eventually passed.* He couldn’t comment as to why the Dude Wipes failed the Vancouver Field Test, but he is skeptical of non-industry testing. “If you’re not running [the test] with a certified iso-lab, and certain specifications, it gets kind of hard to speak on,” he says.
Riley also resists any FTC-enforced definition of flushable. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst idea in the world,” he says. “But I’m sure they’d just be working with the industry. The industry would end up creating it anyway. They would just hold the government’s hand the whole time.”
The way he sees it, growing pains are to be expected. “The technology can obviously and already arguably is on the same pace as toilet paper,” Riley says. “Who’s to say the technology isn’t going to surpass toilet paper some day and cut down on paper waste altogether?”
The Dudes are hard at work on a top-secret video that they hope to release on Black Friday. Riley wouldn’t share many of the details, but he did mention that it will feature “real-life funny scenarios that can happen to any guy.” The goal, he says, is to “show why using Dude Wipes is better than toilet paper.” That, and “to make tons of people laugh across the country about the topic of wiping your ass.”
* This article has been updated to clarify that the model of Dude Wipes that failed INDA's flushability test was a prototype, and not already on the market.