Wet wipes have become utterly ubiquitous in modern life, useful for removing makeup, cleaning surfaces, sanitising hands and when changing nappies. In fact, a staggering 11 billion wet wipes are used in the UK each year!
So, what’s so wrong with wet wipes, you might ask? Well, speak to your local rivers trust, water company, or neighbourhood plumber, and they will spell out just how much of a nuisance these products cause in our sewage systems and, unfortunately, our rivers.
Even though we’re using them every day, many consumers aren’t aware that wet wipes contain large amounts of plastic. Wet wipes are made up of fibres, most containing plastic, glued together, and infused with chemicals such as cleaning or disinfecting agents. They are designed to be strong and therefore don’t break down easily, meaning that they cause all sorts of havoc when they get flushed down a toilet…
Wet wipes should be binned, not flushed down the toilet. Only the 3 Ps (pee, poo, and paper) should go down the loo! Once in our sewage system wet wipes get caught in pipes and trap other waste, causing huge blockages. Wet wipes are a major component of “fatbergs”, which are massive clogs made up of plastics, fats and cooking greases, and other kinds of litter. In an emergency, such as when pipes are blocked or when heavy rainfall inundates the system with water, our sewerage system is actually designed to release untreated sewage, including flushed wet wipes, into rivers and seas.
Wet wipes do untold damage to delicate river ecosystems and those of us who like to swim, play and paddle in our blue spaces:
- Wet wipes break down into microplastics, which get eaten by fish and other wildlife causing them physical harm and potentially starvation.
- Chemicals in wet wipes such as disinfectants and glues contribute to staggering levels of chemical pollution in our rivers.
- Wet wipes gather on riverbanks and beds creating “wet wipe islands” that change the shape and flow of rivers, affecting water quality, habitats and migration. Member trust Thames21 has found that some wet wipe islands in the River Thames have grown to around 1,000m2 - equivalent to two tennis courts!
- People using our rivers come into contact with these sewage-related wet wipes, which may carry bacteria and pose a human health risk.
Unfortunately, wet wipes get flushed far too often. 22% of people surveyed in 2023 admitted to flushing wet wipes down the toilet, which helps to explain the statistic that 75% of drain blockages are caused by wet wipes. One reason behind this is that many wet wipes are labelled as “flushable,” which misleads customers to think they can flush these wipes down the toilet without causing harm. In fact, the label only signifies that the wipes are easier to flush if necessary, not that they should be. Along with misleading labelling, customers also flush wipes due to hygiene concerns, practicalities of not having a bin in the bathroom, or simply not being aware of the negative environmental impacts of plastic-based wipes.
Although the Rivers Trust movement will continue to educate the public about proper disposal habits, for example through our yearly support of the Unblocktober campaign, we feel that the most effective and decisive way to stop plastic-based wet wipes inflicting harm on our rivers is to implement a ban on these products.
We now have an opportunity to make our voice heard by Government, as a public consultation into a proposed ban has just opened. The Rivers Trust is joining many other environmental groups in responding in favour of a ban on plastic wet wipes. In our response we will be calling for:
- A ban on plastic in wet wipes.
- Clear labelling that tells consumers not to flush wipes of any kind.
- Industry action to produce non-plastic, biodegradable alternative wipes.
- Consideration of a healthcare exemption to ensure practitioners and patients are not disproportionately affected.
We encourage you, as a member of the public, to submit a response as well. Altogether we can tell the Government, loud and clear, that we don’t want plastic-based wet wipes and all the environmental damage they cause.
Simply visit the consultation webpage and complete the form to submit a response. In your answers you may want to:
- Share your opinions on plastic wet wipes.
- Give an example if you have seen wet wipes out in the environment.
- Describe how you feel about rivers and the importance of healthy blue spaces.
Here are some useful resources if you’re keen to learn more about the wet wipes issue: