Saturday 15 June 2019

Call To Ditch The 11,000,000,000 Polluting Wet Wipes We Use Each Year

The UK uses an astonishing 11 billion wet wipes each year, which are causing environmental chaos to our waterways
Campaigners are urging the government to phase out the astonishing 11 billion wet wipes used in this country each year, many of which are causing an environmental catastrophe. They are behind 93% of blockages in UK sewers and are even changing the shape of our rivers as they pile up on beds and banks. Scientists say many people are unaware of the damage the wipes are causing, with the vast majority containing non-biodegradable plastic. The industry has flourished with a broad range of wipes for removing make-up, cleaning all types of skin and surfaces, looking after babies’ bottoms and also to apply insect repellent or sunscreen. By 2021, the global industry is set to be worth £16.5 billion.

Close-up of baby wet wipes in a woman's hand. Part of body, selective focus.
But the founder of campaign group City to Sea Natalie Fee said: ‘The problems with wet wipes are threefold. ‘Those that are flushed, clog up our pipes and sewers and contribute to giant fatbergs. This then makes our sewage systems overflow and other plastics spill into our waterways and seas, putting marine life at risk. ‘Those that are discarded in the bins will often end up in landfill or get incinerated, contributing to carbon emissions. ‘Ideally, we want people to stop using them and treat them like they would any other single-use plastic.’

Within the last decade, City to Sea said there had been a 400% increase in the number of used wipes found on beaches. Last year, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) recorded an average of 12 per 100 metres of coastline. The main issue comes from people flushing wet wipes down the toilet – even from those labelled as ‘flushable.’ Once in the sewerage system, they readily combine with fats, oils and greases to form blockages known as fatbergs. 

Each year water companies spend £100 million dealing with 300,000 sewer blockages – money that is then added to the consumer’s bill. Flushable wipes should contain biodegradable cellulose whereas those that cannot be put down the toilet are made from synthetic substances such as plastic or polyester. 
Undated handout photo issued by South West Water of fatberg found lurking under a seaside town, which has been successfully removed in Sidmouth, Devon. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday March 28, 2019. The 64-metre monster, made of congealed fat, oil and wet wipes, was discovered by South West Water under The Esplanade in Sidmouth just before Christmas. See PA story ENVIRONMENT Fatberg. Photo credit should read: South West Water/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Wet wipes that have been removed from a drainage system (Picture: WWT) A recent study by MCS found many own-brand wet wipes from 10 leading chains that claimed to be flushable failed standardised tests. Wipes from Aldi, Asda, Boots, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Superdrug, Tesco, Waitrose, and Wilko were still likely to cause environmental problems, MCS said. They added that only those with the ‘Fine to flush’ logo can be put in toilets. The group’s policy and advocacy manager, Rachel Wyatt, said: 

‘Wet wipes are designed to be used once only and tend to generate lots of waste in the environment as a result. ‘There are lots of reusable cleaning cloths, make-up wipes, baby wipes, etc now on the market, which cut down on waste going to landfill and could save consumers cash in the long run too. ‘However, we know wet wipes can be really handy, and so hope that consumers put these into the bin regardless of whether they are labelled flushable or otherwise environmentally friendly until they are labelled with the ‘Fine to flush’ logo. ‘It’s the only way to be sure.’

Wet wipe industry body Edana said they disputed the claims made by the MCS about flushable wipes and said those that met their standards did not contain plastic. A spokesperson told that the real issue was with the 90% of wipes that cannot be flushed and they were working to raise awareness about proper disposal. They added: ‘Reducing sewer blockages and marine litter is a common objective we share and have discussed repeatedly with the MCS, Defra and Water UK. We still hold ambitions to work with them and a range of UK stakeholders to reach this goal.’ The UK government told it aims to become ‘a global leader in tackling the issue of plastic pollution.’

Last month, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced a ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from next April. The move comes ahead of an EU-wide ban on 10 widely-used single-use plastic items scheduled for 2021, including cutlery, plates, balloon sticks and polystyrene cups. Campaigners welcomed the move, acknowledging this would reduce plastic waste by some 5.6 billion items per year. But they noted it paled in comparison to the 11 billion wet wipes, 2.5 billion period products, four billion nappies and over a billion incontinence pads hidden in our bathrooms and used every year.

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