From baby wipes to coffee cups, we seem to prefer warm fuzzies over science for the sake of convenience.

What do the letters "-able" at the end of a word such as "portable" mean to you? Let's agree that they suggest pretty plainly that whatever the rest of the word refers to can be accomplished. Something portable can be carried; something washable can be washed.

But they actually go further than that. To any reasonable person, the suffix not only suggests that the activity can be accomplished, but that it can routinely, indeed easily, be accomplished by anyone.

A portable radio can be carried by anybody who can carry things, but an oven cannot. A very strong person can carry an oven, but that does not make it a portable oven. A serving of candy floss can be washed, but the results would be disappointing.

So consider the baby wipes marketed to parents for cleaning babies' nether regions under the descriptor "flushable". Let's pass over the question of when and why flannels and warm water and washing machines became unfashionable; let's ignore our modern obsession with being able to chuck things away rather than clean them up. Let's concentrate instead on the last four letters of the word "flushable".


To the makers of the wipes (and their laundry-averse customers) "flushable" means that you can drop them in the dunny, press the flush button and they're gone - out of sight and out of mind.

But not out of trouble. Plumbers are saying that the wipes are snagging and bunching together in the pipes further down, particularly in older suburbs where drains are made of rougher materials than PVC. In some areas, these wipes are implicated in half of blocked drains. In short, the flushable wipes aren't really flushable at all.

You have to ask how it has come about in this 100 per cent pure country of ours that environmental friendliness went from idea to marketing strategy without stopping at reality. Biodegradable has become a buzzword, not a statement of scientific fact. As one plumber interviewed about the flushable wipes said: "Nuclear waste is biodegradable too, given enough time."

After I wrote a few months ago about a plastic bag maker whose claims about the bags' "oxo-degradability" were misleading and, for all practical purposes, meaningless, I was contacted by a bloke whose firm makes what are known as "guest amenities" - those little shampoos and soaps you find in hotel and motel rooms.

He tells me his company's products are biodegradable, the packaging is degradable and they run soap recycling programmes. But he is competing with cheap imports that are "openly marketed as biodegradable when we know and they know that they aren't".

The country is awash with such spurious marketing, he says, citing the "compostable" coffee cups popular among latte-lovers who like to paint themselves a pale shade of green.

"Those cups are only compostable in a commercial composter and there is no facility in this country to compost them. Everyone thinks, 'Oh, this is lovely. I can just throw it into my bin and it's going to break down', but it's not. It will just go into the landfill where it will stay as it is."

This bloke's competitors include a crowd whose catalogue marks some products with a pretty little leaf symbol. It means, according to the symbol guide page, that "this product is either biodegradable or degradable, made from recycled material or positively contributes to environmental sustainability in one way or another".


It would be hard to think of a piece of vague piffle more calculated to create warm fuzzies in customers' hearts without the slightest foundation in scientific authenticity. "Every time you buy one of our shampoos, a baby dolphin is born," would be worse, I suppose. But only just.

Stuart Wallace, a consumer manager at the Commerce Commission, says he does not have a strong sense that spurious claims of environmental friendliness are on the rise.

An amendment to the Fair Trading Act that came into effect in June last year requires businesses to be able to substantiate with credible independent information any claims that they make about their products, including claims about biodegradability.

The commission has made 13 requests for substantiation - three concerning environmental claims - and the number is likely to increase, he says.

The manufacturers of "flushable" wipes are not among those 13. One of them was quoted as saying they don't recommend flushing more than two at a time, which may suggest a rebranding - "flushable(ish)" perhaps - is in order.

At least they might produce a plumber to vouch for them. If they can find one.