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Of flushable wipes and fatbergs

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

When the drains backed up in a city centre sports block, the cause turned out to be a mix of rubber and fabrics, paper and plastic: wet wipes, a variety of tissue papers, sanitary pads, disposable (haha) nappies, Q-tips, various forms of bodily output, plasticised paper (burger wrappers) and condoms were to blame. It wasn't a fatberg, as sewer techs call the stuff they routinely have to remove, but the effect was the same. If disposable nappies aren't actually disposable by any sensible definition of the term, what about using "flushable?" That's a case that has just come to court.

Australian companies and consumer regulator ACCC, which seems to have no boundaries to its remit, alleged that paper goods company Kimberley-Clark "had misled consumers about the suitability of its wipes to be flushed down the toilet."

Toilets are an extraordinarily complex subject. They look simple and in operation they are: open the lid, do your business, close the lid, flush, assume everything has gone because, usually, it has.

But no, it's not like that at all. For example, in a world of huge standardisation, toilets may have fads and fashions (avocado or sky blue suites, anyone?) but those fads and fashions are all on a superficial level. Beneath the surface, even within countries, there is no such thing as bog standard.

Sure, today, if you try to buy a toilet with a push-button in the top of the tank, that's easy. If you want a lever handle flush, it's next to impossible. The industry has decided that levers are out despite the fact that they are far more suitable than push buttons for the elderly, those with knackered fingers through arthritis, tendinitis or just too many years typing and the fact that they create impossible to clean areas. A lever has none of those disadvantages but that's not what the industry wants to sell. So, from a commercial standpoint, there is standardisation, for the time being, until the next fad comes along.

But then there are wall-mounted or floor-mounted decisions to be made. And here's the rub: it's not your decision. The toilets you can install are defined by several factors including how far away from the wall the original builders / architects decided to place the pipe into which the toilet flushes. There are some Japanese designs that are 450 mm from the wall to the centre of the hole and some, also Japanese, where the centre of the hole is 120cm from the wall. There is an almost infinite variety of distances in between, so much so that some bright spark has started to manufacture bendy plastic tubes to allow a variation in "offset" so that the choice of toilets available for a particular hole-to-wall distance can be increased.

Then there are the two different types of flushing system.