Wet wipes , most of which contain plastic, are used for everything from removing makeup and cleaning surfaces, to sanitising hands and when changing nappies. 11 billion wet wipes are used in the UK each year and, whilst there is no available figure for Ireland, similarly staggering amounts are used across the EU. They are so ubiquitous that, in 2023, they were included in the ‘basket of goods’ used by the UK’s Office for National Statistics to measure cost of living. Although they offer convenience, wet wipes wreak havoc on the environment. When disposed of incorrectly, they can cause blockages in sewers and end up in our precious rivers and seas.
Wet wipes should be binned, not flushed down the toilet. They are designed to be strong, so do not break down easily. Once in our sewerage system they get caught in pipes and trap other waste, causing blockages in the system. According to Water UK, wet wipes cause around 93% of UK sewage blockages and Northern Ireland Water has called wipes the main enemy of sewers. Uisce Éireann (Irish Water) reports that wet wipes cause an average of 16 blockages per day in their network, costing around €7 million per year to clean up. Wet wipes are a major component of “fatbergs” that clog huge sections of the sewage network. In an emergency, such as when pipes are blocked, our sewerage system is designed to release this untreated sewage directly into rivers and seas .
Wet wipes cause a range of environmental harms and negatively affect human health:
- Wet wipes break down into microplastics, which get eaten by fish and other wildlife in our rivers and can cause various harms including physical injury and decreased energy levels;
- Wet wipes contain chemicals such as disinfectants and binding agents, which then 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 and thereby affect water quality, habitat formation, and migration; member trust Thames21 has monitored wet wipe islands in the River Thames and found that some islands have grown to approximately 1,000m2 - equivalent to four tennis courts!
- People using our rivers for swimming, kayaking, fishing, etc. can come into contact with these sewage-related wet wipes, which may carry bacteria and pose significant health risks.
What are the contentious aspects?
Many wet wipes are labelled as “flushable,” which misleads customers to think they can flush these wipes down the toilet without causing harm. For example, research by Uisce Éireann (Irish Water) found that, in 2021, almost 1 million people in Ireland were flushing wipes and other sanitary products down the toilet. In fact, the “flushable” label signifies that the wipes are easier to flush, if necessary, not that they should be flushed. There is an urgent need to improve labelling standards, so that customers are instructed to dispose of wet wipes correctly in a bin.
Plastic-free alternatives are not the simple solution to this problem. They are still designed not to break down easily, and therefore will still cause blockages in the sewerage system and result in sewage spills into rivers. The only positive aspect to plastic-free alternatives in such a case is that they don’t introduce microplastics into the environment. Plastic-free wet wipes need to be accompanied with the clear labelling mentioned above, instructing consumers to bin the wipes.
Additionally, costs for innovative, plastic-free alternatives cannot be passed onto customers, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis. Industry needs to ensure alternative products are widely available at affordable prices to secure an equitable transition away from plastic wet wipes.
The healthcare sector’s dependence on wet wipes also raises a social justice issue. Delayed policy action on wet wipes has been attributed to concerns about how a ban would unjustly affect healthcare providers and patients. It will be important to consider whether an exemption for the healthcare sector is a necessary element to any ban.
Wet wipes generally reach our rivers through the sewerage system. Water companies need to increase the capacity of their systems to reduce the use of storm overflows and improve the screening of waste to limit the wipes getting into the environment.
What are we doing about the issues?
The Rivers Trust movement across Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland is taking action on this issue from a variety of angles, both local and national, short-term, and long-term. Across our 65 members trusts, river clean-up activities are an integral part of restoring our water environment. Trusts have delivered 606 river clean-ups, working with volunteers from local communities. Many litter pick activities, such as the Severn Spring Clean, have been delivered through the Preventing Plastic Pollution project. Unfortunately, across these islands, our trusts are reporting that wet wipes are a ubiquitous feature of all litter picks.Thames21 calculates that their volunteers have removed around 64,000 wet wipes from the Thames riverbank in 5 years.
Through litter picks, where volunteers count items and carry out brand surveys, as well as analysis of other data sets, we form a clear, evidence-based picture of the litter and wet wipes issue. Member trusts’ involvement in the Preventing Plastic Pollution project has amassed a vast and hugely informative dataset. Rivers Trusts use this data to inform advocacy and educational activities to raise awareness of this issue. For example, the Plastic Free Mersey project, led by Mersey Rivers Trust and Thames21, uses brand survey data to inform and influence the plastics and recycling industries.
The Rivers Trust movement advocates to government, producers and water companies on the issue of wet wipes, mostly as part of our general advocacy on reducing pollution and sewage discharges. Thames21 worked closely with Fleur Anderson MP on her Plastics (Wet Wipes) Bill, which gained support from all political parties, water industry, retailers, and campaign groups.
Education and community engagement are key to solving the wet wipes problem, and Rivers Trusts are always in touch with local communities through school visits, litter picks, and events with groups of anglers, swimmers, etc. In Britain, Northern Ireland, and Ireland, we have supported the annual ‘Unblocktober’ campaign on social media, which encourages the public to be more aware of what they put down their drains. Our message to everyone is to reduce their use of single-use wet wipes and never flush wet wipes down the toilet – only the 3 Ps (pee, poo, and paper) should be flushed!
What is our position?
The Rivers Trust believes that no single tool will fix the pervasive issue of wet wipes in our rivers, so we advocate for multi-stakeholder action. We need policymakers, manufactures and retailers, water companies and the general public on board to tackle this problem. The Rivers Trust is committed to providing the evidence for and facilitating the move towards wet wipe free rivers.
- Both UK and Irish governments must take swift action to ban plastic in wet wipes and regulate for stronger labelling standards so that customers know to bin, not flush, wipes of any kind.
- The Irish Government is set to draw wet wipes under an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme by the end of 2024, as set out in the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy 2020-2025. This is a positive step forwards, but The Rivers Trust will continue to push for a ban on plastic-based wet wipes in order to eliminate these products from our rivers.
- The UK Government has considered a ban since 2018, and, in October 2023, they opened a consultation under a commitment set out in the Plan for Water. Now, The Rivers Trust wants to see urgent action taken; governments in England, Wales, and Scotland must coordinate on this issue and should challenge each other to be ambitious.
- Manufacturers and retailers must create and make available innovative plastic-free alternatives that don’t cause as many blockages and improve labelling on packaging and in-store to help educate the public about how to correctly dispose of wet wipes;
- Water companies must invest further in our sewerage infrastructure so that it relies less on sewage overflows and install more screens to prevent wet wipes entering the environment;
- All stakeholders must work together to raise public awareness around the proper disposal of wet wipes, both plastic and alternatives. The Rivers Trust would like to see more concerted, collaborative effort on the part of governments and industry to engage with NGOs, educators and community groups and develop high-impact educational campaigns. By increasing public awareness of the consequences of flushing wet wipes, we can promote responsible waste management practices and give people a part to play in the solution.
- Consumers need to dispose of their wet wipes correctly and The Rivers Trust will continue to share this simple message; bin it, don’t flush it! Only the 3 Ps (pee, poo and paper) should be flushed down the toilet.
This statement was co-authored by Liz Gyekye of Thames21, Joanna Braniff (All-Ireland Communications and Advocacy Manager for The Rivers Trust) and Kezia Saunders (Advocacy Officer for The Rivers Trust), and informed by steering group discussions with John Sanders of Mersey Rivers Trust, Thomas Hartland Smith of Severn Rivers Trust and Hannah Dry of South East Rivers Trust.
This statement was published in October 2023.
 For more information relating to Wales visit Afonydd Cymru’s guide to preventing pollution.
 For more information relating to Scotland visit Fisheries Management Scotland.
 While this document refers to wet wipes, this should also be taken to include other types of cleaning wipes i.e. kitchen wipes, as these also contain plastic and will cause blockages when flushed down the toilet.
 Read our position statement on Combined Sewer Overflows for more information about this process.