Flushable Wipes Wiping Out Sewer Systems

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Over the past few years sales for pre-moistened, flushable wipes have skyrocketed and so has the budget of local water companies trying to clear the drains of the cleansing cloths.

It turns out that these wipes aren't all that flushable — because they don't break down in the drains.

Craig Rance of Thames Water — the private utility company responsible for managing the public water supply in Greater London — tells Here & Now's Robin Young that when the wipes mix with cooking oils that are poured down the drain they create what are known in the industry as "fatbergs" — that cause massive damage to the Victorian sewer system.

"The baby wipes and the so-called flushable wipes — that we say are never flushable — help bind [the fats] together, like bricks and mortar," Rance said. "And eventually what you end up with is a large mass of fat that is rock hard. It goes hard like chalk. And once its in there its hard to get it out."

Rance say a massive 15-ton fatberg in the London suburb of Kingston required Thames Water to close down and dig up the roads for six months. Rance says the company spends £ 1 million every month to deal with fatbergs.

"We are working to get a flushability standard that will go worldwide — to make sure that anything that has 'flushable' on it — actually meets the breaking down standards, so that it won't clog and wrap around the sewer machinery  and break it," Rance said.

We treat the toilet like a magic portal.

Craig Rance

He says this is not just a London problem and reminds people only two things should go down the toilet:

"Only toilet paper and human waste," Rance said. "We treat the toilet like a magic portal."

Rance says flushable wipes have become popular as cleaning products, makeup removers and for personal hygiene — replacing toilet paper. They even have had a celebrity endorsement from of the Black-Eyed Peas, who said he preferred them over toilet paper.

"The problem was he was in London at the time, so we sent a message to him to ask him to please stop, because it was blocking up our sewers," Rance said.


  • Craig Rance, campaign communications executive for Thames Water.

This segment aired on March 24, 2015.


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