Manufacturers taken to court over fatberg-causing wet wipes

Posted 14 December 2016

Wet wipesAfter a one-tonne ‘fatberg’ was dredged from a NSW pump station earlier this year, the scourge of wet wipes in pipes is back in the spotlight. 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has instituted court proceedings against Kimberly-Clark Australia and Pental Limited, alleging that both companies misled consumers by labelling wipes ‘flushable’.

“The impression given by the representations which Kimberly-Clark and Pental each made about these products was that they were suitable to be flushed down household toilets in Australia, when this is not the case,” said ACCC Chairman Rod Sims. 

Issues stem from consumers thinking that these products “disintegrate like toilet paper when flushed,” said Sims – a fallacy water authorities have been struggling to refute for years. 

“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,” he said. 

Sydney Water Media Manager Kieran Smith said that after conducting consumer behaviour research, Sydney Water found that misleading packaging is a major culprit. 

“They want to do the right thing, and they are buying ones that say ‘biodegradable’ or ‘flushable’ thinking that it’s the safer option,” Smith said. 

“But we would contest that there is no such thing as a flushable wipe … in fact, we haven’t found one that breaks down at all.”

The products in question include Pental’s White King Power Clean Flushable Toilet Wipes, and Kimberly-Clarks’ Kleenex Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths and Flushable Wipes for Kids, which received a ‘Shonky Award’ from the consumer advocate group Choice in 2015.

The combination of wipes, oils and fat – and the resulting fatberg – wreaks havoc on drainage systems, and causes millions of dollars in damages each year. Blockages can also result in environmental damages when sewage overflows into creeks, rivers or beaches. 

Sims said he suspects this Federal Court action “is the first action of this kind in the world.” In both proceedings, the ACCC is seeking corrective notices and pecuniary penalties of as much as $1.1 million per breach.