So called "flushable" wipes don’t go away - neither will baby wipes

Canadian municipalities, utilities and commissions own the sanitary sewer collection and wastewater treatment systems. Built and maintained in large part by the water & sewer rates paid by residents and businesses, sewage systems are designed to collect and effectively treat only three things – pee, poop and regular toilet paper or the 3 Ps. Our treatment systems cannot break down synthetic wipes fibers and it appears the natural environment is having trouble as well.

Problems with our sewage systems caused by consumers flushing products down the toilet are increasing, as are the environmental impacts.  This interference is being encouraged by product labels that say "flushable”.   

Despite their convenience, and regardless of the brand and labelling, wipes are not acceptable in our sewage systems. This is true of any other form of garbage such as feminine hygiene products, condoms, and dental floss that will fit down a toilet.

The term "flushable” is a manufacturing industry label chosen to promote product convenience. Does it seem acceptable to encourage people to throw wipes and other garbage into the toilet, knowing that reports show they are resulting in clogged sewage systems and discharges to the environment? The lack of consumer understanding of wipes disposal instructions (if any are present) stems from inconsistent to non-existent labeling on packages.

In our discussions with INDA’s (Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry – the wipes manufacturer’s trade association) President Dave Rousse, we have repeatedly asked him for assistance in communicating to the public that the "toilet is not a garbage can.” The request keeps being refused. 

Villee et al  2019  examined 120 individual packages of baby wipes, and determined that the manufacturer’s compliance with the INDA and EDANA  (European Disposables and Nonwovens Association) 2017- 2nd Edition Labeling Code of Practice (CoP)  is poor at best. More than two and a half years after the manufacturers agreed to the most recent version CoP, almost 40% of the products still do not carry a Do-Not- Flush (DNF) symbol on either the top or front panel as required by the CoP.  In various forms a labeling code of practice has existed at INDA since 2009.

The inability of INDA/EDANA to ensure compliance from even its members raises the question, is the wipes manufacturing industry capable enough to regulate itself?

Ironically one of INDA’s own guidelines requires a wipe to pass through a household pump yet many wipe packages have written instruction not to flush in a basement pump unit or toilet that contains a lift pump. Under this disposal scenario could you positively identify the wipe product involved with a clog? Maybe that is the reason for the instruction.

We want to eliminate any confusion that may exist with the source of our wipes problem as we the municipalities do not have a shared responsibility (with INDA) to operate within the Canada wide Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER).  However, since manufacturers won’t put a tell-tale marker on their wipes, INDA’s member companies have been successfully fending off municipal court challenges which are seeking compensation from wipes related damage.

Wipes are convenient and commercially successful products.  Our issues are consumers are being told wipes are flushable or are given no instruction at all instead of directing them to put the used wipes in the garbage.  Furthermore, consumers are not  informed that many wipes are made from synthetic fibers.  This puts us at a disadvantage, as our municipal messaging about only putting pee, poop and paper down the toilet is being overwhelmed by the advertising power of personal hygiene products. 

By way of background, INDA represents wipes manufacturers and has provided their member companies with their version of voluntary guidelines to determine "flushability." These guidelines are not uniform across companies; nor was there external third-party testing to ensure that the wipes will breakdown. 

Collaborative work between INDA members and international municipalities-wastewater associations had been undertaken to develop an ISO (International Standards Organization) specification for flushables. This process was nearing completion in 2016, when it was halted by objections from the manufacturers. 

Similarly CWWA, NACWA,WEF and APWA were participating with INDA to improve their guidelines however in 2017 all four municipal groups withdrew from the process as INDA was unwilling to address our fundamental concerns with the product degradation testing and labelling.    

Discouraging as all that was, Canadian wastewater associations, including MESUG (Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group) and CWWA  along with American and international municipal wastewater associations joined together to form the International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG). This coalition is supported by wastewater services in 25 countries and by over 300 stakeholders. 

IWSFG picked up the ISO standard work and finished a municipal approved IWSFG Flushability Specifications document ( These specifications were released for worldwide public comment and were utilized as the basis for the March 2019 Ryerson University flushability research report ( 

The Ryerson study of 101 consumer products likely to be used in the bathroom, showed all of them, but 11 brands of regular toilet paper, failed the flushability specifications. 

Why did wipes fail? They simply failed to meet IWSFG criteria related to drain line clearance, disintegration, fiber analysis and package labelling. Multiple flushes can be required to carry the heavy wipe sheet down the drain, and many wipes do not break down like regular toilet paper. This is because they can be reinforced with synthetic, man-made, re-constituted cellulose, rayon, lyocell, and even plastic fibers.

In fact Villee et al 2019 reported that of 120 North American baby wipes products examined 119 contained synthetic fibers or plastic resins. These wipes are classified as single use plastics by the European Union. Additionally they report "manufacturers go to great lengths to keep the consumer from knowing that baby wipes are made of plastic or synthetic fibers...”

Unfortunately for municipalities we are on the receiving end of a well-organized industry that is exploiting a combination of (so far) no enforced standards for; wipes disintegration, buoyancy, fiber composition, labelling, definitive brand marking coupled with a (purposefully?) confused consumer.

The IWSFG PAS specifications fill this void. Now we require the collective political will to advocate for standard tests – labelling at the local Council level, provincial municipalities associations, Competition Bureau of Canada (product labelling), provincial and federal Ministers of Environment.

Testing of "flushable” products at facilities like Ryerson University requires resources, so we encourage you to be involved and contribute to CWWA and MESUG.

Please contact us with your community’s experience, cost impacts and photos.

Jennifer Leno, Cobourg, Ontario - MESUG Chairperson,
Barry Orr, Ryerson University researcher, - Spokesperson for MESUG, 
Neil Thomas, Water & Sewer Engineer, Fredericton, NB - past President CWWA

Canadian Water and Wastewater Association