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Baby wipes are shown on a shelf of a pharmacy in Toronto on Tuesday April 30, 2019. Friends of the Earth Canada wants the Competition Bureau to investigate a recent study it says proves there is no such thing as a 'flushable' wipe.

Doug Ives/The Canadian Press

Canada’s Competition Bureau is digging into complaints that companies that market “flushable” wipes are making false claims about their products.

Friends of the Earth Canada and EcoJustice, on behalf of six individual Canadians, filed a complaint earlier this year about companies that use the flushability claim, after a Ryerson University study found nearly two dozen wipes labelled as “flushable” did not break down after being flushed.

Although the Competition Bureau won’t publicly confirm any investigations, the complainants say bureau officials recently told them an inquiry is proceeding.

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The complainants are asking for the bureau to order the companies to remove all claims that their products are flushable, issue public retractions, and clearly label their products with “do not flush” instructions. They also want a $10-million fine for each product.

Barry Orr, a city sewer outreach and control inspector in London, Ont., has been working for more than six years with both national and international organizations of sewer operators to try to get a standard in place for what wipes can be called “flushable.”

To date those efforts have failed: municipal sewer operators want one standard and a corporate organization representing the makers of the products has a different one.

Orr co-wrote the study through Ryerson, which tested 23 products labelled as “flushable” and concluded none of them fully disintegrated after being flushed. The report, released in March, concluded that two of the wipes partially broke down but the other 21 remained fully intact. Orr said many of the wipes are made with small amounts of plastic, while others are more like facial tissue made of paper with strong binding agents.

The study found facial tissue and paper towels also did not fall apart in the sewers. Only toilet paper really disintegrated after flushing, Orr concluded.

Canadian municipalities estimate it costs them at least $250 million a year to remove giant sewer clogs, known as fatbergs, that form when wipes and other solids that don’t disintegrate get glued together in the pipes by substances such as kitchen grease.

One of the biggest ever reported was found last February in Liverpool, England. As of July, workers were still trying to extricate the 400-tonne, 250-metre-long fatberg from a city sewer pipe.

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Orr said private homeowners have also been hit with thousands of dollars in repairs after wipes clogged their own pipes.

Manufactures of the wipes argue the problems plaguing city sewer lines are from people flushing wipes that are not marketed as flushable, like baby wipes and cleaning cloths.

“Importantly, all wipes do not use the same technology, are not meant for the same use and cannot be flushed down the toilet,” said Terry Balluck, director of global communications for Kimberly-Clark Corp., which makes Cottonelle flushable wipes.

But Balluck said Cottonelle flushable wipes are “absolutely compatible with sewer and septic systems” and start to break down as soon as they are flushed.

Orr’s study disputed that claim.

An Australian judge recently sided with Kimberly Clark in a case brought against the company by Australia’s competition commission over the flushable wipes. Balluck said the company hasn’t yet heard from the Competition Bureau in Canada.

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Orr said one of the issues is that companies have thoroughly confused people about what can and cannot be flushed. His goal is to work with the industry to find a way to make products that everyone can be happy about. He noted Japan has flushable single-use wipes that do break down, so the technology is available.

Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, said she hopes the Canadian inquiry will result in an end to the use and manufacture of single-use wipes. She would like to see them regulated by governments but it isn’t clear which level of government could do that in Canada.

She does think the wipes that contain plastic could be covered by Ottawa’s study on single-use plastics being done in a bid to ban many of those products that have more environmentally friendly alternatives.

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