The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent
Disposable Wipes: The chaotic afterlife

Disposable Wipes: The chaotic afterlife

December 10, 2020

Table of Contents

  • Plastic wipe-out
  • Biodegradable break-down
  • Compostable conundrum
  • Toilet twister
  • The big plastic picture
  • Plastic take-away

Let's face it: parenting is work that's messy. It is no wonder then that when we're in sticky (and stinky!) circumstances, many of us reach for those handy wipes. To scrub, remove makeup, and freshen the back, we use wipes.

Currently, it's estimated that we use 450 billion wipes per year worldwide. That's every second of 14,000 wipes! Unfortunately, wipes are wreaking environmental havoc and adding to the rising global plastic contamination crisis, as many single-use convenience items.

Plastic wipe-out

In modern life, plastic has become so commonplace that it's hard to imagine a world without it. Convenience foods and goods: yogurt cups, baby food pouches, and takeout cups, cutlery, and dishware are particularly likely to be wrapped in or made of plastic. Plastic, plastic, anywhere.

Wipes, too, are mostly made from plastic fibers such as polypropylene or polyester, ensuring that for decades, any wipe you throw away will live on in the atmosphere. Although it can seem like the greener option to opt for biodegradable, compostable, or flushable wipes, it turns out they are not much better.

Biodegradable break-down

Here's the thing: almost everything is biodegradable and will disintegrate naturally over time as they are broken down into their constituent parts by bacteria, fungi, and microbes. This applies to timber, meats, and, yes, even plastic.

The variable in question is the length of biodegradation time a substance requires. Although in 40 to 50 years, a spruce tree is all but completely gone, it is estimated that plastics take up to 1,000 years to decompose. The word "biodegradable" provides no hint as to whether a wipe would break down within a year or languish for a millennium in a landfill, more marketing than substantive.

Compostable conundrum

A bit of a different story is compostable goods. Composting is an accelerated decomposition process, and compostable products are engineered to break down into organic matter relatively easily under specific conditions (temperature, nutrient ratio, humidity, and air supply). Composting can happen in backyard composters on a small scale or in industrial composting facilities on a large scale.

Most of the compostable goods available are meant to break down properly in commercial composters, but in your city-run compost program, this does not mean you can dispose of your compostable wipes.

This is because compostable engineered goods such as wipes do not biodegrade at the same pace or under the same conditions as other materials (food, leaves, etc.) and may end up fouling the final compost product, so always consult with your municipality to see what they do and do not approve.

Toilet twister

So what about those wipes that are flushable? Can I flush the toilet with wipes? Sure. Oh sure. Just like you can technically flush toys, mobile phones, and that sweet watch that your mother-in-law gave you down the toilet for your birthday (hello toddler life!). But they're not recommended.

You should never ever flush the bathroom with a wipe. Ever. Flushable wipes do not break down like simple toilet paper, contrary to marketing statements. No matter what the box says, do not flush the toilet with wipes.

Last year, 73 different types of single-use wipes were tested by researchers at Canada's Ryerson University, 17 of which were classified as 'flushable,' and not a single one was safely distributed in their evaluation of the sewage system. For households and towns, flushing wipes down the toilet leads to costly plumbing issues.

Canadian cities spend upwards of $250 million a year, eliminating blockages created by wipes and other non-flushable materials. Blocked sewers result in sewage backups and overflow that end up in basements or local waterways, beyond the expense.

Blockages in urban drainage systems are such a big concern that wastewater treatment authorities across the United States have requested people to use the hashtag #WipesClogPipes not to flush them10 down the toilet.

So if you're still using some kind of wipes, throw them in your garbage where they belong.

The big plastic picture

The plastic industry has created enough waste to bury Manhattan under two miles (3.2 kilometers) of waste. Despite the use of wipes being in the billions each year; they are just a small part of the huge plastics crisis that the world is currently facing since its debut in the 1950s. That's more than seven Empire State Buildings in height or almost six CN Towers!

All of the things about plastic that the industry likes to make it the ideal formula for environmental damage. Instead of fixing or replacing old ones, it is inexpensive, thus making it more affordable to purchase new plastic products; it is durable, taking anywhere from 10 to 1000 years to biodegrade in the environment; and it is lightweight, meaning plastic waste often ends up in unintended locations such as in our parks, lakes, oceans, and ravines.

And it is not just an eyesore when plastics end up in the atmosphere. Studies have shown that more than half of sea turtles eat plastic, 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts, and plastic is eaten by more than half of all species of whales and dolphins.

All in all, plastic has been eaten by almost 700 species of marine mammals, seabirds, and turtles. In certain cases, disposable wipes and plastic bags are mistaken by aquatic animals for delicious jellyfish, which may cause physical harm to the digestive system of the animal or create a blockage, all of which may decrease food intake and lead to stunted growth and malnutrition.

Plastic take-away

When it comes to battling plastic waste, we all have a part to play. We should use our purchasing power as individuals and consumers to move away from disposables and towards sustainable alternatives. Instead, try using a cleaning cloth and a suitable solution to scrub out a spill or disinfect your counters.

Wash the baby's ass with strong toilet paper and a soft cloth with mild soap for residue and warm water. And a new bidet attachment is a perfect idea if you are looking for extra freshness in your toilet habits.

But only how far can individual acts get us. To effectively solve the issue of plastic waste, we need government and business leadership. This means pressing the federal government in Canada to ban toxic and hard-to-recycle plastics, set compulsory recycling goals for plastic products, and set compulsory targets for recycled content for new plastic products.

There are opportunities in the U.S. to collaborate with local advocacy groups that press for action on plastic by state and city governments.

Recently, New York State moved to ban single-use plastic bags, while Berkeley, California, introduced an order forcing food companies to switch away from plastic takeout containers and towards reusable alternatives. We need to find ways of dispersing and enforcing these compelling ideas in the country.

Globally, in order to help developing countries to implement recycling and management systems that keep plastics out of the atmosphere, both Canada and the U.S. need to partner with other large and economically advanced countries (like the G7).

For decades, we have been exporting our plastic waste to other countries, and it is our duty to clean it up and deal with it ourselves.

When you take the next steps to decrease the use of plastic and encourage essential plastic policies, remember: almost everything is "biodegradable" or "flushable," which is how long it takes and where it ends up.

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