Yorkshire Water technicians say they have unblocked sewers 50,888 times so far this year. And nearly a third of these were avoidable, caused by supposedly ‘flushable’ wet wipes being flushed down the toilet.

Yorkshire Water is not alone, with wet wipes in particular becoming a major problem for every sewerage company.

Across the pond, lawsuits have been launched against the firms that advertise their products as ‘flushable’. The city of Wyoming in April sued six wet-wipe manufacturers, arguing that its products marketed as ‘flushable’ are clogging plumbing systems and costing the city huge amounts of money. Councils are beginning to take action, and now New York city council is working on a bill which would require companies to clearly label their products.

In the UK, where wet wipes continue to cause problems for sewer companies, perhaps there is an argument for a similar course of action.

The Advertising Standards Agency tells Utility Week it hasn’t received any complaints about the issue. “If anyone has any concerns that disposable/baby wipes are being advertised in a potentially misleading or irresponsible way then we would encourage them to lodge a complaint with us,” it says. “We would then be able to assess the complaints, look at the ad in question and establish whether there was a problem under the rules.”

Tentative steps have been made. Wessex Water tells Utility Week it has written to both supermarkets and manufacturers of wet wipes raising its concern. What’s more, the water industry has lobbied for clearer wording on packaging of wipes, but so far the response has been “disappointing”.

The firm also says that all sewerage companies have met with EDANA, the trade group representing the non-woven fabric manufacturers, which has devised a ‘flushability’ protocol that its members’ products must pass before they call them ‘flushable’. However, not all sewerage companies agree that the ‘flushability’ protocol is strict enough. They are working with the group to improve the rate at which these types of wipes break down.

For the companies forced to spend millions every year to address the growing problem there is strong incentive to find a solution.

“Wet wipes are one of the biggest causes of blockages in sewers and at wastewater treatment works,” says Southern Water. “Even wipes described as ‘flushable’ cause blockages and the biodegradable ones often don’t spend long enough in the sewer to start to decompose.”

“Flushable wipes might flush away without much trouble,” adds Northern Ireland Water, “but they cause real trouble in the sewers as they don’t dissolve or break down, as toilet paper would. It only takes a few wipes to cause a blockage in your sewers, with all the costly – and unhygienic – consequences that can bring.”

UK sewerage companies have all launched campaigns to encourage the public not to flush products such as wet wipes down their toilets, with some success in certain areas. But sewer blockages caused by ‘flushable’ wipes continue to be a problem – congealing with leftover cooking fat into a solid ‘fatbergs’, which block pipes and can cause sewage to back up into people’s houses and gardens.

Yorkshire Water technical manager James Harrison says there has been a “significant increase” in the number of blockages related to wet wipes in particular in its area. “We understand information from manufacturers can be quite confusing as some products say flushable on the packaging,” he says. “However, we would urge people to flush only ‘the 3Ps’ – poo, pee and paper down the toilet.”

“Our message is clear,” says Wessex, “no wipes down the toilet regardless of whether they claim to be flushable or not.”

But so far, the message doesn’t appear to be getting through, with sewerage companies and, ultimately, consumers having to fork out more than £80 million every year to clear blockages.

United Utilities
Number of blockages (per year): 53,000
Cost to clear: £20 million
Campaign: What Not To Flush

Thames Water
Number of blockages (per year): 55,000
Cost to clear: £12 million
Campaign: Bin it – don’t block it

Severn Trent Water
Number of blockages (per year): 20,000
Cost to clear: £10 million
Campaign: Bag it and Bin it

Yorkshire Water
Number of blockages (per year): 35,000
Cost to clear: £8 million
Campaign: Stop it, don’t block it

Welsh Water
Number of blockages (per year): 2,000
Cost to clear: £7 million
Campaign: Stop the Block

Anglian Water
Number of blockages (per year): 30,000
Cost to clear: £7 million
Campaign: Keep it Clear

Scottish Water
Number of blockages (per year): 35,000
Cost to clear: £6 million
Campaign: Keep the cycle running

Wessex Water
Number of blockages (per year): 13,000
Cost to clear: £5 million
Campaign: Be Smart Love Your Loo

South West Water
Number of blockages (per year): 8,500
Cost to clear: £4.5 million
Campaign: Love Your Loo

Northern Ireland Water
Number of blockages (per year): 4,400
Cost to clear: £2.5 million
Campaign: Dirty Dozen

Southern Water
Number of blockages (per year): 7,000
Cost to clear: £1.8 million
Campaign: Bag it and Bin it

Northumbrian Water
Number of blockages (per year): 3,000
Cost to clear: £1 million
Campaign: Dwaine Pipe and Love your Drain

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