Most flushable wipes aren’t flushable.

I’m a chemical engineer running for Oakland county water resources commissioner, and as the main job of the office is sewage, and as I’ve already written on the chemistry, I thought I might write about an aspect of the engineering. Specifically about toilet paper. Toilet paper is a remarkable product: it’s paper, compact and low in cost; strong enough to clean you, smooth on your bum, and beyond that, it will disintegrate in turbulent water so it doesn’t clog pipes. The trick to TP’s dry strength and wet-weakness, is that the paper pulp, wood cellulose, is pounded very thin, yet cast fluffy. For extra softness, the paper is typically coated with aloe or similar. Sorry to say, the same recipe does not work for wet-wipes, paper towels or kleenex (facial tissues); all of these products must have wet-strength, and this can cause problems with sewer clogs.

Patent 117355 for perforated toilet paper claimed it as an improved wrapping paper.

Patent 117,355 for perforated toilet paper on a roll. It’s claimed as an improved wrapping paper.

Before there was toilet paper, the world was a much sadder, and smellier place. Much of the world used sticks, stones, leaves, or corn cobs, and none of these did a particularly thorough job. Besides, none of these is particularly smooth, or particularly disposable, nor did it fall apart — not that most folks had indoor plumbing. Some rich Romans had plumbing, and these cleaned themselves with a small sponge on the end of a stick. They dipped the sponge ned in water for each use. It was disgusting, but didn’t clog the pipes. I’ve seen this in use on a trip to Turkey 25 years ago — not in actual use, but next to the commode.

The first reasonably modern toilet was invented in 1775 by Alexander Cummings, and by 1852 the first public flush toilets were available. The design looked pretty much like it looks today and the cost was 1¢. You got a towel and a shoe-shine too for that penny, but there was no toilet paper as such. Presumably one used a Roman sponge or some ordinary, standard paper. A popular wipe, back int he day  was the Sears-Roebuck catalog. It came free to most homes, and included a convenient hole in the corner allowing one to hang it in and outhouse or near the commode. It was rough on the bum, and didn’t fall apart. My guess is that it clogged the pipes too, for those who used it with flush toilets. The first toilet-specific paper wasn’t invented till 1859. Joseph Gayetty, an American, patented a product from pulverized hemp, a relatively soft fiber, softened further with aloe. The paper softer than standard, and had less tendency to clog pipes.

Toilet paper has to be soft

Toilet paper is either touted to be soft or strong; Modern Charmin touts wet strength, while Cottonelle touts completeness of wipe: ‘go commando.” 

The next great innovation was to make toilet paper as a perforated product on a roll. These novelties appear as US Patent #117,355 awarded to Seth Wheeler of Albany, NY 25 July 1871 (Wheeler also invented the classic roll toilet paper dispenser). Much of the sales pitch was that a cleaner bum would prevent the spread of cholera, typhoid, and other plagues and that is a legitimate claim. As the  market expanded, advertising followed. Some early brands of paper touted their softness, others their strength. Facial tissues, e.g. Kleenex, were sold specifically as a soft TP-like product that does not fall apart when wet. Sorry to say, this tends to go along with clogged toilets; do not flush more than one kleenex down at a flush. Kleenex is made with the same short fibers and aloe as toilet paper, but it contains binders (glue) to give it wet-strength. My guess is that Charmin is made the same way and that it isn’t great on your plumbing.

Paper towels and most baby wipes are worse to flush than Kleenex. They are made with lots of binder and they really don’t fall apart in water. Paper towels should never be flushed, and neither should most baby wipes, even brands that claim to be ‘flushable.” When flushed, these items tend to soak up fat and become fat bergs – the bane of sewer workers everywhere. There is a class action law suit against flushable wipe companies, and New York City is pursuing legislation to prevent them from claiming to be flushable. Still, as with everything, there are better and worse moist-wipe options. “Cottonelle” brand by Kleenex, and Scott flushable wipes will eventually (In a day or less) dissolve in water. These products are made with binders like kleenex, but the binder glue is a type that dissolves in any significant amount of water. As a result, these brands fall apart when flushed. For now, these are the only flushable brands I’d recommend flushing, and even then I suggest you only flush one at a time. In tests by Consumer Reports, other brands, e.g. Charmin and Equate flushable wipes do not dissolve. These manufacturers either have not quite figured out how to make dissolvable binders, or they can’t get around Kleenex’s patents.

Robert Buxbaum. October 10, 2016. If you live in Oakland county, MI vote for me for water commissioner. Here’s my web-site with other useful essays. I should mention Thomas Crapper, too. He invented the push-button flush and made some innovations in the water cistern, and he manufactured high-end commodes for Parliament and the royal family, but he’s irrelevant to the story here.

4 thoughts on “Most flushable wipes aren’t flushable.

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  4. thg

    In the middle ages, some Europeans would collect moss and use it to clean up after a bowel movement. They probably tossed it down the same outhouse hole along with the rest as it was totally organic and would break up along with the other organic materials.

    Reply

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