Theoretically, wipe-makers should be able to solve this problem with a flushable product that degrades quickly, and Strickland says that his department has been talking with the INDA, the nonwoven-fabric-industry trade group, about a pending set of industrywide standards for flushability. There are national discussions going on, too, through the federal National Association of Clean Water Agencies and other groups, and the NYCDEP is looking to legislate what can and can’t be labeled flushable. (Dollar Shave Club’s Dubin is quick to say that his One Wipe Charlies “meet industry qualifications for flushability. Plus you should only need one, hence the name.”)
The basic problem, however, is that toilet paper is specifically engineered to come apart in water. It is inherently fragile. A wet wipe, by contrast, is supposed to be tough enough to hold up under a constant soaking in its water and propylene glycol lotion, and under the mechanical pressure of scrubbing. It is, as Strickland puts it, “very, very strong, pound for pound, like spiderweb.” (The technical term for the most common material is spunlace.) In short, the very thing that makes a wet wipe good at its job makes it a problem once it’s discarded.
At least we’re not quite as bad off as London, with its Victorian sewers. This summer, the British press went nuts writing about a fifteen-ton blob of cooking grease, bound together with fibrous material from wet wipes, that was discovered under the streets of the Borough of Kingston Upon Thames. It was the size of a city bus. It quickly became known as the “fatberg,” and had almost completely stopped up an eight-foot-diameter pipe, threatening to flood the whole neighborhood. “The wipes break down and collect on joints and then the fat congeals,” explained a representative from Thames Water to the Guardian. “Then more fat builds up. It’s getting worse. More wet wipes are being used and flushed.”
He’s right. Wet-wipe consumption overall has nearly tripled in the past decade, according to Kimberly-Clark figures. It’s overspilled the baby-products aisle, too: You can buy dedicated wood wipes, stainless-steel wipes, leather-furniture wipes, computer-screen wipes. All of which are arguably wasteful but not especially harmful—unless you put them down the drain.
For Strickland, the issue comes down to education. “We just have to equate it with diapers,” he says. “No one would flush a diaper down the toilet. I hope.”