The problem with flushable wipes
When they hit the market, flushable wipes proved to be incredibly popular with Australians. Soon, the supermarket shelves were lined with wipes that promised to leave kid and adult bottoms a bit more clean and comfortable than toilet paper alone, while still being as easily disposable as the humble loo roll.
But although people were willing to cough up a little extra to get the fresh feeling, nobody was factoring in the thousands they might end up spending having their plumbing fixed.
Because as it turns out, manufacturers might describe them as "flushable", but the reality is these wipes are the cause of blocked pipes and expensive repairs across the country.
The sordid history
We first drew attention to the issue in 2015 when we released test results that showed that, despite the claims, "flushable" wipes failed to break down in water. We also lodged a complaint with the ACCC alleging misrepresentation, awarded Kimberly-Clark a Shonky and called on people to boycott these products.
At the time, Kimberly-Clark was quick to point out that its wipes met guidelines for flushability, but unfortunately that doesn't count for much.
"Kimberly-Clark claimed that its 'flushable' wipes meet guidelines for flushability, but these guidelines were written by industry, for industry," says Sarah Agar, CHOICE's head of campaigns and policy. "This self-regulation is useless, and shouldn't let companies get away with misleading people."
An important test case
In a decision handed down on 28 June 2019, the Australian Federal Court didn't find Kimberly-Clark responsible for the fatbergs clogging up Australian sewers, but didn't exactly exonerate them either.
The court found there was ample evidence that "wipe" products generally (flushable and non-flushable) are a significant management problem for municipal sewerage systems, impairing the function of infrastructure, and increasing maintenance costs.
"When the ACCC took on this case, we didn't expect it would be easy," says Agar.
"It's important for regulators like the ACCC to take on tough cases and test the law. So while we're disappointed with the result, there were some tricky legal issues to contend with."
It's important for regulators like the ACCC to take on tough cases
"At the core of this case is whether it's reasonable to advertise these wipes as 'flushable', but evidence is hard to collect when it comes to these products."
"While we've all seen the photos of disgusting fatbergs being pulled out of sewers around the world, it's another thing to prove a specific company's product is to blame – which is the evidence that the Federal Court wanted."
"We think if the wipes don't break down like toilet paper, they shouldn't be labelled 'flushable'," says Agar.
"Unfortunately, this isn't the way the Federal Court made its decision on this case."
CHOICE warns: DO NOT FLUSH
One of the most disappointing parts of the court's decision was Kimberly-Clark's response.
"At Kimberly-Clark we have always been committed to ensuring that our flushable wipes products meet or exceed international guidelines for flushability. We know that our flushable wipes are suitable to be flushed and this has now been confirmed by the Federal Court of Australia," says Doug Cunningham, managing director of Kimberly-Clark Australia and New Zealand.
Instead of listening to a self-interested industry, we should listen to the people being stuck with plumbing bills and to the experts at water services
We strongly disagree with Kimberly-Clark's assertion that the court exonerated the company.
"At the heart of the issue, it's guidelines written by industry, for industry, that come into question," says Agar.
"The industry guidelines are not a good standard to follow. Instead of listening to a self-interested industry, we should listen to the people being stuck with thousands of dollars in plumbing bills and the experts at water services who are faced with the multi-million dollar clean-up cost every year."
Water industry response
Peter Hadfield, spokesperson for Sydney Water, also expressed disappointment in the court's decision.
"The only things that should be flushed down the toilet are the 'three Ps' – poo, pee and paper," says Hadfield.
We back this advice from Sydney Water, and encourage Australians to warn their friends through social media.
What happens from here?
A month after the June 2019 decision the ACCC lodged an appeal.
"We are appealing this decision because we believe the Court made an error in deciding whether it was misleading for Kimberly-Clark to represent that the Kleenex wipes were suitable to be flushed," says Rod Sims, chair of the ACCC.
"We will argue on appeal that Kimberly-Clark’s flushable claims should have been found to be misleading because there was evidence of the risk of harm these wipes posed to the sewerage system, and that the trial judge was wrong to require evidence that these particular wipes had caused actual harm."
"The ACCC will also argue that the Court made an error by rejecting the ACCC’s case that Kimberly-Clark had claimed the Kleenex Wipes would break up quickly like toilet paper when flushed," Mr Sims said.
"The ACCC is aware of problems continuing to be reported by Australian water authorities as a result of non-suitable products, such as wet wipes, being flushed down the toilet and contributing to blockages and other operational issues."
A hearing for the appeal will be set at a later date. In the meantime, the message from CHOICE is clear: DO NOT FLUSH.