Wipes vs Pipes: the fate of plastic wet wipes in the Don River

Project Overview

In collaboration with Community Matters Toronto, our objective is to prevent wet wipes from entering the Don River and other environments by using three approaches: public awareness, best practice, and policy.

Many people are unaware their wipes are made of plastic nor what happens to them if they are flushed. This is in part due to poor labelling on wipes packages. The lack of standard, regulated “Do Not Flush” labelling makes it unclear to consumers that wipes should only be thrown in the trash. By engaging the community at the public, commercial, and legislative levels, the discouragement of flushing behaviours will be a coordinated effort.

How Do Wipes Reach Aquatic Ecosystems?

Though wet wipes are seen as an alternative to paper, they should not be flushed like paper as they risk clogging the septic pipes that transport sewage material to wastewater treatment plants, and release plastic into the waterway. In Toronto, we have combined sewer overflow that prevents the sewer network from exceeding capacity during flood events. When it rains, this means that collected water and sewage material are both released from septic tanks directly into nearby creeks, rivers, and eventually Lake Ontario.

When plastic wet wipes are released in the Don River, they are either caught and sit in the riparian zone or are slowly carried downstream to Lake Ontario. Additionally, wet wipes in the environment will continue to degrade into microfibers – a type of microplastic.

(photo: Wet wipes collected from the Don River)

This Project Aims to:
  1. Estimate the environmental emissions and pollution of wet wipes in Toronto
  2. Survey stores to understand the market demands and standards of the wet wipe industry
  3. Determine how plastic wet wipes are a source of microfiber pollution in the environment
Our Findings so Far:

This graph demonstrates how much of all the plastic pollution found in the Don River in 2022 was made up of flushed wet wipes. Wet wipes made up about 25% of all plastic alone!

This pie chart illustrates the overwhelming prevalence of plastic within the wet wipes found in the Don River!

This project is led by Simran Hansra, a recent graduate from the University of Toronto with an Honours BSc – double majoring in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity & Conservation (and with a minor in English). Prior to receiving the Pollution Prevention Project Fellowship, she was a research assistant in the Rochman Lab working towards characterizing plastic pollution in the Don River.

For more information, please email Simran Hansra or Chelsea Rochman.

This project is supported by Community Matters Toronto.