Australian 'flushable wipes' company wins court case over blockages

An Australian wipes manufacturer has won a court case after claiming its wipes were flushable - despite images showing the severity of the blockages wipes cause.

Kimberly-Clark Australia was accused by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) of making false or misleading representations between May 2013 and May 2016 after it said its Kleenex Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths were able to be flushed down the toilet.

The consumer watchdog alleged the use of terms like "flushable", "able to be flushed in the toilet", and "designed... [to] disintegrate in the sewage system" meant consumers thought the products could be flushed like toilet paper, when this was not the case.

"We argued that Kimberly-Clark's wipes did not break apart quickly once flushed and therefore should not have been considered flushable," ACCC chair Rod Sims said.

"Australian water authorities face significant problems when non-suitable products are flushed down the toilet as they contribute to blockages in household and municipal sewerage systems."

The blockages have to be removed manually - in some cases by the bucketload.
The blockages have to be removed manually - in some cases by the bucketload. Photo credit: Sydney Water

Records showed there were 28 consumer complaints about blockages in their household systems during a period when millions of packets of Kleenex flushable wipes were sold.

Consumer group Choice said its tests found the wipes held together for 21 hours, compared to toilet paper which dissolves in a few minutes.

"Our tests clearly show that 'flushable' products stink," Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey said in 2016.

"Kleenex misled consumers into thinking 'flushable' wipes perform the same way as toilet paper when they basically fail to break down at all after hours of testing."

Images released by Sydney Water show massive clumps of wipes clogging up its waste pipes. The blockages have to be removed manually - in some cases by the bucketload. If blockages are too severe, it results in sewage overflows into waterways.

However Justice Jacqueline Gleeson, who oversaw the case, said the evidence wasn't strong enough to prove the wipes were unsuitable for flushing.

"If it is sufficient, I do not draw that conclusion because the instances of blockages identified by the complaints are so few in the context of the total sales of the wipes that they are properly characterised as insignificant," she said.

"There was ample evidence that 'wipe' products generally are a significant management problem for municipal sewerage systems, impairing the function of infrastructure and increasing maintenance costs."

Justice Gleeson did find that the wipes were more harmful to sewerage systems compared to toilet paper due to the greater difficulty in breaking them down.

"However, the evidence does not reveal the risk materialised except to the insignificant extent revealed by the consumer complaints," she said.

But the decision has outraged consumer and environmental groups - as well as utility companies - who say the decision is terrible for sewage pipes, households and waterways.