Sewage expert fires warning over ‘flushable’ wipes in septic tanks

15 December 2023 by CSG

So-called ‘flushable wipes’ can destroy private sewage systems such as septic tanks, harm the environment and even impact the food chain, an expert has warned.

James Baxter, Recycling Manager at CSG, said he is deeply concerned about the recent increase in wipes clogging up sewage systems and treatment centres.

Some wipes are marketed as flushable but James warned that even those take longer to break down than toilet paper and can cause significant problems.

“The nature and composition of materials we are seeing in both private sewage systems and at our treatment facilities has changed dramatically,” said James.

“Encouragingly, we are seeing far less nappies and sanitary products, but there is an obvious increase in disposable and so-called flushable wipes.

“These bind together with fat, oil and greases and create a horrible, impenetrable mat which can wreak havoc and cause significant, expensive blockages.

“Most of these wipes will have some plastic fibres in them to give them strength. Anything that isn’t simply toilet paper is going to have a negative impact.”

Water UK has developed a ‘Fine to Flush’ standard but James said any wipes marketed as ‘flushable’ can cause issues and some can take 500 years to decompose.

For people with private sewage works, wipes can also prevent bacteria from doing its job of treating the sewage by restricting oxygen levels, putting nature and people at risk.

Worse still, some of the plastic fibres can find their way into gardens, local watercourses, and even into the sewage solids, which are used as a sustainable fertiliser and soil conditioner.

James said tiny particles of plastic that break away from the wipes can also be consumed by wildlife. The particles contain toxic chemicals that interfere with human and animal hormones.  Accumulations of these toxins have been found in the tissues of wild animals.

James said: “Sewage recycling should be circular, but flushed wipes is making that very difficult.

“We accept that plastic is everywhere – in the air, in the land and in the water – but this is one way we can reduce the problem.

“We all make sewage, so it’s good to be aware of how much we produce, where it’s going, how it’s being managed and how sustainable we can all make it.  Being mindful over what goes into your system is a really good start.”

James said used wipes should always be thrown in the bin so they can be incinerated with domestic waste.