Wipes, a disaster for our sanitation systems and the environment

Wipes, a disaster for our sanitation systems and the environment

Posted on 12 Apr 2023 by Lise Helluy

Wipes have become an integral part of our lives and we use them for a variety of practical reasons, such as quick cleaning of surfaces and personal hygiene.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of these wipes has increased dramatically. Many people use these products daily to clean and disinfect themselves, without fully realizing the environmental impact this has on the world. Although they are labeled as "biodegradable", the consequences of their use are far from negligible and can have devastating effects on our sanitation systems and our environment.

We all need to be aware of the dangers that disposable wipes pose to the environment. If they don't dissolve properly in water and reach our wastewater treatment plants, they can build up and cause significant damage. In this article, we will discuss the harmful effects that disposable wipes can have on the environment and our wastewater systems. We will also examine how individual behavior change can help minimize these nuisances.

1) Wipes, a scourge for sanitation systems

Sewage systems are designed to treat wastewater to make it safe for discharge into the environment. These systems implement different mechanical, biological, and/or physico-chemical elimination steps. These different steps allow the extraction of solid and dissolved pollution present in the wastewater. Want to learn more about how wastewater systems work? Read our latest article!

Since the arrival of COVID, the use of wipes has exploded and they pose technical problems at every stage of the wastewater system.

When disposable wipes reach the sewage system, they mix with grease and oil, clog the pipes and block the pumps and valves. This increases the material damage, as pumps and valves have to be serviced more often or even replaced.

When disposable wipes reach the treatment plants, they clog the screens at the head of the plant and break electromechanical equipment such as extraction screws.

Example of wipes collected in a sewage station

Example of the number of wipes extracted in a wastewater treatment plant

All of these failures greatly increase the risk of dumping untreated water into the environment. As a result, more and more wipes can be seen along waterways or even in trees after floods.

According to the EurEau document of October 24, 2014, the damage to wastewater treatment plants in Europe is estimated to be between 500 and 1000 million euros. That's a huge figure, isn't it? That was before the arrival of COVID, so I'll let you imagine the extent of the damage to the plants today.

2) The ecological consequences of wipes

According to the magazine 60 million of consumers, in Europe alone, 70 billion wipes (more than one kilo per person per year) end up in the toilet bowl!

The problem is that their composition based on petroleum products implies a slow degradation in the environment: up to 400 years. These wipes have an impact on the aquatic fauna and flora: whether biodegradable or not, the decomposition of each one releases microplastics that finish their course in the natural environment.

Biodegradable wipes decompose faster than conventional wipes, but their complete degradation takes several months: they have had time to reach the various electromechanical equipment of the downstream sewage systems. So why write biodegradable if it confuses consumers? The reason is marketing and it is about greenwashing: to orient the image of a company towards an ecological positioning whereas its actions translate the opposite. In other words: to pretend that the company is environmentally friendly only to increase the sale of products.

Most of them write "flushable in the toilet" or "100% biodegradable fiber" when this is not the case. These brands should make it clear that wipes are absolutely not to be flushed down the toilet to avoid confusion. The communication clearly goes against what should be done for the environment.

This microscopic plastic pollution is found everywhere: rivers, seas, and oceans. The microplastics are then ingested by the aquatic fauna and flora. We also end up ingesting this plastic, which is present in fish caught for our consumption.

Moreover, microplastics are also found in the water bodies used for drinking water production. In countries where the technical and industrial means are important as in France, we can succeed in eliminating them: this requires ultra-efficient filtration means, such as ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, or even reverse osmosis (0.0001 to 0.001 micrometer) (1 micrometer = 0.001 millimeters). These technologies are generally not implemented specifically for the removal of microplastics, and can also remove other unwanted residues.

So how can we fight against this scourge? We will see what the solutions can be in the paragraph below.

3) Solutions to limit the use of wipes

It is important for consumers to be aware of the risks that intensive use of disposable wipes poses to the environment and to the functioning of our sanitation systems. Consumers can take action, for example, by using washable wipes or even by simply switching to traditional toilet paper.

Washable and reusable wipes are a great alternative; they can be washed and used repeatedly. This solution is affordable, as well as environmentally friendly. In addition, it saves consumers money because they are not thrown away after use.

Finally, manufacturers need to put measures in place to ensure that their products comply with standards and that the information on the packaging allows the consumer to easily identify how to dispose of a used wipe.

The creation of consumer awareness campaigns is also essential, to accurately explain the harmful effects of wipes. These campaigns must also serve to raise awareness and change people's habits. Indeed, it is necessary to push consumers to always check the composition of the products they buy.

fatbergs, new york city

Example of a campaign realized for the city of New York in the United States

Legislation also plays a major role. Stricter controls on marketed products and better labeling must be put in places so that consumers know the impact these products can have on the environment when they are not disposed of properly.

In France, "Decree No. 2022-748 of April 29, 2022 on consumer information on the environmental qualities and characteristics of waste-generating products "prohibits" the use of the terms "biodegradable", "environmentally friendly" or any other equivalent environmental claim on a product or packaging, new to the consumer."

Consumers, manufacturers, but also public authorities have an important role to play in the fight against the intensive use of disposable wipes that pollute our sanitation systems and the environment.

Wipes are an environmental and public health hazard. One solution is to replace disposable wipes with washable products or less environmentally harmful options. It is important for consumers to be aware of these dangers and to be more vigilant about the products they buy and use. Manufacturers must also commit to providing environmentally friendly products and implement awareness campaigns to promote a more sustainable and responsible future. Only joint efforts by the consumer and the producer can ensure that disposable wipes will not contribute further to the damage caused to our planet.  Together we can make a difference!

If you have any doubts about what can be disposed of in your BIOROCK sanitation system, do not hesitate to contact one of our experts to find out more.


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