For the average parent of a newborn, baby wipes are an everyday occurrence. But if you ever flush wipes down the toilet instead of snugly securing them in your diaper genie, you may want to heed the following news. In Charleston, South Carolina, divers recently found thousands of pounds of baby wipes clogging sewers, and now officials hope this discovery will serve as a message that wipes shouldn't be flushed down the toilet.
Last week, at Charleston's Plum Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, officials figured out that a group of pipes were massively clogged with baby wipes, as The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. So, a group of divers (who were probably regretting their decision to become divers at this point) were tasked with swimming through the large pipes to clear the wipes out. It took the divers three full days of swimming deep into the sewer to remove the blackened, oily wipes, which totaled several thousand pounds in weight in the end, as Fox 13 reported.
Charleston Water's official Twitter account kept people updated on the startling story. "You know wipes clog pipes, right? If not, baby wipes clogged a series of large pumps at our Plum Island Wastewater Treatment Plant on Thursday afternoon. Since then, we worked 24/7 to get them out," the account tweeted.
"Then we sent divers 80-90 feet deep into the wet well/raw sewage to search in complete darkness with their hands to find and identify the obstruction," Charleston Water continued. "As we expected, they came up with these large masses of wipes in their first two loads, with more to come."
Even though many baby wipes may be marketed as flushable, they are not actually able to break down in sewers, as noted by The Guardian. And because of this confusion, these divers had to swim through pitch black sewer water, with the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel being a mass of used baby wipes. At least the divers couldn't smell anything through their drysuits, and they got hosed down with straight bleach promptly after emerging from the sewer, as TIME reported.
Here's a little more background on exactly why baby wipes are not flushable — even if they say flushable on the package. Most baby wipes are made of synthetic woven materials, according to the The Post and Courier, and any synthetic or man-made materials are essentially just plastic. It would be comparable to flushing a plastic bag down the toilet.
Plastic and synthetic materials do not biodegrade like toilet paper or human waste does. Instead, plastic wipes last for years and years. If they do not build up and clog a sewer like they did in Charleston, they will break down into micro plastics, which eventually make their way into oceans and rivers via treated wastewater, which marine life then consumes, according to Sky News.
And if a piece of micro plastic doesn't kill the fish who consumes it, there's a chance that it could still be inside the fish that you eat for dinner. In a study published in the Frontiers in Marine Science, earlier this year, 73 percent of deep-sea fish studied from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean were found to have micro plastic inside of them, as EcoWatch reported. And in a 2015 study published by the University of California, researchers sampled fish from California and Indonesia fish markets, and they found that 25 percent of the fish sampled contained micro plastics.
So, what can people do to make sure this never happens again? Firstly, never ever flush baby wipes, even if they say flushable on the package, as Charleston Water warned on Twitter. Throw them in the trash, or, if you buy compostable baby wipes (Eco Salon has a few brand suggestions), you can compost them in your backyard. Another even more eco-friendly option is reusable baby wipes, which can simply be tossed in the washing machine — and save you money in the long run. Here's a list of helpful tips for using reusable wipes from This West Coast Mommy.
While some might think that throwing one wipe down the toilet won't make a difference, remember that millions of others could be thinking the exact same thing. Also, remember the Charleston Water divers, because excavating poopy wipes does not sound like a job anyone deserves.