To flush or not to flush?

It is a question Canada's Competition Bureau says it cannot answer.

Three years ago, Friends of the Earth Canada and lawyers from Ecojustice filed a grievance with the bureau saying the makers of 20 disposable wipes were falsely advertising the products as safe to flush down the toilet.

In February, the Competition Bureau informed Friends in a letter that it was closing its inquiry because it's not clear what it really means to be "flushable."

"There are a number of competing guidelines about when a product can be considered to be disposable in municipal sewer systems," the letter reads.

Friends CEO Beatrice Olivastri called that "totally unacceptable."

The Friends complaint was partly based on a study done at Toronto Metropolitan University, which tested 23 different wipes products marketed as flushable and biodegradable and concluded none of them lived up to the claim.

They included baby wipes, wet wipes for older kids and adults, toilet brush cleaning cloths and diaper liners.

Olivastri said the Competition Bureau didn't contact any of the organizations or experts cited in the complaint, including the study's authors, or the International Water Services Flushability Group, an association of water utilities and professionals that has developed a standard for what is truly flushable.

The complainants say the only other "standard" that exists was created by the makers of the wipes themselves, and those haven't been accepted by any municipalities in Canada or any wastewater professionals anywhere in North America.

Citing confidentiality, the bureau won't say what its investigation found, or who was interviewed.

Julie Baribeau, a spokeswoman for the Competition Bureau, told The Canadian Press in an email while the investigation has ended, the bureau "does not endorse the representations made about 'flushability' or the tests used to evaluate this feature."

Wipes have become the bane of municipal wastewater system operators around the world.

Massive blockages made up heavily of flushed wipes that are glued together by cooking fats and other oils put down the drain, have been dubbed "fatbergs" in Britain. In 2019, a "fatberg" the length of a passenger jet weighing more than 90 tonnes backed up sewers in Liverpool.

Earlier this year, British media reported that an island the size of two tennis courts and made up mostly of wet wipes was actually changing the course of the Thames River.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies in the U.S. said in 2020 it was costing municipal wastewater systems $441 million a year in extra operating costs for cleanup and clogs because of wipes.

The city of Calgary reported getting 7,200 calls to remove blockages from sewers in 2021 and single-use wipes were the biggest culprit.

In the United States a number of class-action lawsuits have been filed against wipes makers.

Nine days before the Competition Bureau in Canada closed its investigation citing a lack of evidence, a U.S. judge approved a settlement in a case against Kimberly-Clark Corp., brought by the city of Charleston, S.C.

Kimberly-Clark did not respond to a request for comment on the Canadian investigation, but in 2019 a spokesman told The Canadian Press the company stood by its claims that its Cottonelle wipes were indeed flushable.

Some U.S. states now have laws forcing manufacturers to include labels on all disposable wipes that they are not to be flushed.

Olivastri said Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne can review the Competition Bureau's decision to suspend its investigation in Canada.

But in an emailed statement Champagne's spokesman said the minister will not be asking the bureau to reconsider.

“Investigations under the Competition Act are carried out independently by the Competition Bureau," the statement reads.

"They hold discretion as to how, or whether, to proceed with a matter based on the evidence before it."

The British government may be the first to solve the standards issue.

In January the U.K. launched a "call for evidence" seeking policy advice to handle the wet wipe dilemma, including for "mandatory flushability standards" and the possibility of banning certain types of wipes completely.

In June, then-environment minister Rebecca Pow told the British House of Commons the response to that call was "huge" and the department was now working its way through the advice.

"I say to everybody, 'If you don’t need to use a wet wipe, don’t. And don’t chuck them down the loo," Pow said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2022.