Characterisation of “flushable” and “non-flushable” commercial wet wipes using microRaman, FTIR spectroscopy and fluorescence microscopy: to flush or not to flush

Abstract

The introduction to the market of wet wipes, advertised and labelled as “flushable”, has been the subject of controversy due to their perceived potential to block sewer systems as observed with other non-woven cloths such as traditional non-flushable wipes. Non-woven cloths that enter wastewater systems can find their way into the aquatic environment via wastewater effluents and it has been suggested that the breakdown of these fabrics can release materials such as microplastics into the environment. Worldwide research has revealed the alarming number of aquatic organisms affected by the presence of plastic debris in the aquatic environment harbouring a potential risk to humans through the introduction of microplastics into the food chains. However, the actual material composition of flushable wipes, their fate and impacts in the aquatic environment have not yet been scientifically studied. This paper investigates the fibre composition of flushable and non-flushable wipes, specifically with regard to synthetic polymer material, using Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) and microRaman spectroscopy along with fluorescence microscopy. The study demonstrated the presence of polyester (polyethylene terephthalate, (PET)), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene/vinyl acetate (PEVA/EVA) in some flushable wipes and PET in all non-flushable. Other polymers such us polypropylene (PP), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyurethane (PU) were also identified as potential components in the flushable material. Hence, commercially available wet wipes labelled as flushable could also be considered as a possible source of microplastic fibres in the wastewater streams and, if not retained, in the environment.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

References

  1. Baldwin AK, Corsi SR, Mason SA (2016) Plastic debris in 29 Great Lakes tributaries: relations to watershed attributes and hydrology. Environ Sci Technol 50(19):10377–10385

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Browne M, Crump P, Niven S, Teuten E, Tonkin A, Galloway T, Thompson R (2011) Accumulations of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks. Environ Sci Technol 45(21):9175–9179

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Cata A, Ştefanut M, Ienascu I, Tanasie C, Miclau M (2017) Alkaline hydrolysis of polyethylene terephthalate under microwave irradiation. Rev Roum Chim 531–538

  4. Cesa FS, Turra A, Baruque-Ramos J (2017) Synthetic fibers as microplastics in the marine environment: a review from textile perspective with a focus on domestic washings. Sci Total Environ 598:1116–1129

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Chalmers JM, Edwards HGM, Hargreaves MD (2012) Infrared and Raman spectroscopy in forensic science. Wiley, Chichester

    Google Scholar 

  6. Coppock RL, Cole M, Lindeque PK, Queiros AM, Galloway TS (2017) A small-scale, portable method for extracting microplastics from marine sediments. Environ Pollut 830:829–837

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. DEFRA (2017) Banning the use of microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. Retrieved from DEFRA- Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs web site: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/banning-the-use-of-microbeads-in-cosmetics-and-personal-care-products

  8. Dipayan D, Behnam P (2014) Composite nonwoven materials: structure, properties and applications. Woodhead Publishing, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  9. Dris R, Gasperi J, Rocher V, Saad M, Renault N, Tassin B (2015) Microplastic contamination in an urban area: a case study. Environ Chem 12:592–599

  10. Eerkes-Medrano D, Thompson RC, Aldridge DC (2015) Microplastics in freshwater systems: a review of the emerging threats, identification of knowledge gaps and prioritisation of research needs. Water Res 75:63–82

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Eren B, Karadagli F (2012) Physical disintegration of toilet papers in wastewater systems: experimental analysis and mathematical modelling. Environ Sci Technol 46:2870–2876

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Estahbanati S, Fahrenfeld NL (2016) Influence of wastewater treatment plant discharges on microplastic concentrations in surface water. Chemosphere 162:277–284

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Fam D, Turner A, Latimer G, Liu A, Guirco D, Sta (2017) Convergence of the waste and water sectors: risks, opportunities and future trends—discussion paper prepared for the Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian government., Sydney: Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

  14. FDA (2017) The microbead-free waters act. Retrieved from FDA - U.S. Food and Drug Administration web site: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/guidanceregulation/lawsregulations/ucm531849.htm

  15. Flegenheimer M (2015) Wet wipes box says flush. New York’s sewer system says don’t. The New York Times, 15 March, p MB1

  16. INDA/EDANA (2014) Guidelines for assessing the flushability of disposable nonwoven products: a process for assessing the compatibility of disposable nonwoven products with plumbing and wastewater infrastructure. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from https://www.edana.org/industry-initiatives/flushability/download-the-guidelines-form

  17. Ivar do Sul JA, Costa MF (2014) The present and future of microplastic pollution in the marine environment. Environ Pollut 185:352–364

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Karadagli F, Rittmann BE, McAvoy DC, Richardson JE (2012) Effect of turbulence on the disintegration rate of flushable consumer products. Water Environment Research 84:424–433

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. La Notte L, Salamandra L, Zampetti A, Brunetti F, Brown T, Di Carlo A, Reale A (2012) Airbrush spray coating of amorphous titanium dioxide for inverted polymer solar cells. Int J Photoenergy 14(5):1–5

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Lenz R, Enders K, Stedmon C, Mackenzie D, Nielsen T (2015) A critical assessment of visual identification of marine microplastic using Raman spectroscopy for analysis improvement. Mar Pollut Bull 100:82–91

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Leslie H, Brandsma S, Velzena M v, Vethaak A (2017) Microplastics en route: field measurements in the Dutch river delta and Amsterdam canals, wastewater treatment plants, North Sea sediments and biota. Environ Int 101:133–142

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Löder MGJ, Gerdts G (2015) Methodology used for the detection and identification of microplastics. A critical appraisal. In: Marine anthropogenic litter. s.l. Springer, pp 201–227

  23. Maes T, Jessop R, Wellner N, Haupt K, Mayes A (2017) A rapid-screening approach to detect and quantify microplastics based on fluorescent tagging with Nile red. Sci Rep 1–10

  24. MCS (2017) Great British Beach Clean 2017 report. Marine Conservation Society (MCS), Herefordshire

    Google Scholar 

  25. Mintenig S, Int-Veen I, Loder M, Primpke S, Gerdts G (2017) Identification of microplastic in effluents of waste water treatment plants using focal plane array-based micro-Fourier-transform infrared imaging. Water Res 108:365–372

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Mitchell R-L, Thamsen PU, Gunkel M, Waschnewski J (2017) Investigations into wastewater composition focusing on nonwoven wet wipes. Technical Transactions. pp 125–135

  27. Murphy F, Ewins C, Carbonnier F, Quinn B (2016) Wastewater treatment works (WwTW) as a source of microplastics in the aquatic environment. Environ Sci Technol 5800−5808

  28. Nelms S, Coombes C, Foster L, Galloway T, Godley B, Lindeque P, Witte M (2017) Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: a 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data. Sci Total Environ 579:1399–1409

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Olabisi O, Adewale K (2016) Handbook of thermoplastics, 2nd edn. CRC Press, Florida

    Google Scholar 

  30. Patchell J (2012) What’s choking our sewer lines? Plumbing Connection, Winter, pp 80–84

  31. Rochman CM, Hoh E, Kurobe T, Teh SJ (2013) Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Sci Report

  32. Salvador Cesa F, Turra A, Baruque-Ramos J (2017) Synthetic fibers as microplastics in the marine environment: a review from textile perspective with a focus on domestic washings. Sci Total Environ 598:1116–1129

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Shim WJ, Song YK, Hong SH, Jang M (2016) Identification and quantification of microplastics using Nile red staining. Mar Pollut Bull 113:469–476

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Shim WJ, Hong S, Eo S (2017) Identification methods in microplastic analysis: a review. Anal Methods 1384–1391

  35. Sigler M (2014) The effects of plastic pollution on aquatic wildlife: current. Water Air Soil Pollut:1–9

  36. Singha AS, Rana RK (2012) Natural fiber reinforced polystyrene composites: effect of fiber loading, fiber dimensions and surface modification on mechanical properties. Mater Des 41:289–297

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. Smithers Pira (2015) The future of flushable wipes to 2020, s.l. Smithers Pira

  38. Song YK, Hong SH, Jang M, Han GM, Rani M, Lee J (2015) A comparison of microscopic and spectroscopic identification methods. Mar Pollut Bull 93:202–209

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Talvitie J, Heinonen M, Pääkkönen J, Vahtera E, Mikola A, Setälä O, Vahala R (2015) Do wastewater treatment plants act as a potential point source of microplastics? Preliminary study in the coastal Gulf of Finland, Baltic Sea. Water Sci Technol 72:1495–1504

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. Waller C, Griffiths H, Waluda C, Thorpe S, Loaiza I, Moreno B, Hughes K (2017) Microplastics in the Antarctic marine system: an emerging area of research. Sci Total Environ 220–227

  41. WATER UK (2016) UK water companies lead global battle against ‘misleading’ wet wipes advertising. Retrieved from WATER UK Latest News Web Site: https://www.water.org.uk/news-water-uk/latest-news/uk-water-companies-lead-global-battle-against-misleading-wet-wipes

  42. Wilcox C, Mallos N, Leonard G, Rodriguez A, Hardesty B (2016) Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife. Mar Policy 65:107–114

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Wright SL, Thompson RC, Galloway TS (2013) The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: a review. Environ Pollut 483–492

  44. Ziajahromi S, Neale P, Leusch FD (2016) Wastewater treatment plant effluent as a source of microplastics: review of the fate, chemical interactions and potential risks to aquatic organisms. Water Sci Technol 74:2253–2269

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. Ziajahromi S, Neale PA, Rintoul L, Leusch FD (2017) Wastewater treatment plants as a pathway for microplastics: development of a new approach to sample wastewater-based microplastics. Water Res 112:93–99

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Leonardo Pantoja Munoz.

Additional information

Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues

Electronic supplementary material

ESM 1

(DOCX 950 kb)

ESM 2

(DOCX 29.2 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Pantoja Munoz, L., Gonzalez Baez, A., McKinney, D. et al. Characterisation of “flushable” and “non-flushable” commercial wet wipes using microRaman, FTIR spectroscopy and fluorescence microscopy: to flush or not to flush. Environ Sci Pollut Res 25, 20268–20279 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-018-2400-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • MicroRaman
  • Microplastic
  • Wet wipes
  • Flushable
  • FTIR
  • Fluorescent microscopy