Disposable wipes: Pull one out of the container, wipe down the entire kitchen and bathroom, then flush it down the toilet, right?
While the wipes are a convenient and easy-to-use product that serve a variety of helpful purposes, many Americans may be using them incorrectly – and could be hurting the sewers, the planet and our health, experts say.
Whether it’s flushing a non-flushable wipe or using antibacterial products to excess, misusing disposable wipes that can create costly “fatbergs” or cause potentially long-term damage to the environment.
Here’s a look at how not to use the wipes and easy alternatives that can make them work better in your life:
Don’t flush wipes if the package says not to
If manufacturers deem a product unsafe to go down the drain, it more than likely will be labeled on the packing.
While there is debate over whether wipes labeled as “flushable” are truly safe for sewers, non-flushable products like baby wipes, wet wipes and disinfectant wipes are for your trash can.
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“All wipes will easily flush down your toilet, but that’s where the unseen problems begin,” said Mike Saia, a communications manager at Charleston Water System in South Carolina.
The utility has had multiple cases of massive clumps of the wipes clogging sewers and creating costly headaches for customers.
In October 2018, a massive 12-foot long clog of disposable wipes cost Charleston Water more than $140,000 in damage and cleanup costs. And then again, in June, another clog disrupted the sewage system, costing about $60,000.
Saia said problems occur because as customers flush the wipes, they are often covered in grease, oil, hair and waste, which coat them in a thick layer of grim and hinder them from breaking down.
“It creates rope-like clumps that have incredible strength,” Saia said. When those clumps reach a choke point, like a pump at a wet well in Charleston, they can completely disrupt the system.
The root of the problem is that some disposable wipe products are specifically designed not to break down, says Chuck White, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association.
Dave Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, also known by an old acronym INDA, agrees that most disposable wipes should be thrown out in the trash.
While he says products that meet INDA’s standard to be labeled as flushable are safe for drains, he agrees that non-flushable ones, which make up the majority of the consumer wipe market, need to be tossed in the trash.
Don’t use them excessively
A common concern from many environmentalists is that wipes, like other disposable products like plastic bags or water bottles, are simply wasteful. Some of the disposable wipe products contain plastics and won’t break down easily, ending up in waterways, too.
In the United Kingdom, pushes have been made to ban wipes that contain plastics and do not biodegrade due to pollution in the oceans, the Telegraph reported in 2016.
The newspaper reported that a 2015 coastal cleanup across the country found nearly 4,000 wet wipes on coastlines – roughly 50 for every kilometer.
Don’t clean too aggressively
Whether it’s using the wipes after your baby dirties their diaper or constantly scrubbing your kitchen with an antibacterial one, you can overdo it and clean to a detriment.
In general, wet and baby wipes marketed to be used in the bathroom are safe for use on human skin and can clean even sensitive skin on babies, said Dr. Bernard Cohen, professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins.
But sometimes the skin does develop a rash, often when a baby has a gastrointestinal bug, Cohen said. If a product irritates skin, using another wipe with a different cleaning agent may do the trick, Cohen said.
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Cohen also advises not to use antibacterial wipes to excess around the house. These products can be counterproductive over the long term if they create conditions that hinder children’s ability to resist bacteria, he said.
“I believe a little bit of dirt for kids can go a long the way,” Cohen said.
Any reusable option like a washable rag or a sponge should clean most surfaces. While it’s a balance and children shouldn’t be exposed to harmful bacteria, Cohen says, there’s no need to use an antibacterial wipe every time.
“I’m not saying don’t clean your kitchen, but a little dirty sponge and water is probably fine.”
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller