Frequently asked questions
Wet wipes have become a monster problem as they are getting where they shouldn’t be - in the sea and on our beaches. They get there because their labelling is confusing and because they are disposed of incorrectly.
Flushed wipes readily combine with fats, oils and greases to form blockages and infamous fatbergs in our sewerage systems. This can result in household flooding and raw sewage being discharged into our rivers and seas. It’s then a simple journey up on to our beaches, with a whole host of other sanitary waste. Wet wipes also typically contain plastic and once this has started to break down and disperse it forms part of the greater problem of microplastics at sea.
The public are unsurprisingly confused about the different types of wipes, and what different types of labelling mean. As a result many wipes not designed to be flushed are increasingly being flushed down the toilet. Unfortunately, even those wipes labelled ‘flushable’ can still cause blockages. This is because although labelled as such, they do not meet Water UK (the union that brings together water companies from across the UK) standards, which are the most stringent.
During the MCS 2015 Great British Beach clean, 3,955 wipes were found in a single weekend, an average of 47 wipes for every km of our coastline. We have seen a 400% increase in wipes on our beaches over the last decade.
The cost to the water companies and to ourselves as taxpayers in dealing with these blockages runs into millions of pounds every year.
Blockages account for 80% of sewer flooding incidents in the UK and more than 3,000 properties are flooded each year as a result.
There are over 366,000 sewer blockages throughout the UK every year, of which between 50 % and 80% are caused by fats, oils and grease, wipes, sanitary waste and other unflushable items.
Approximately £88 million is spent annually on reactive blockage clearance nationwide, with further costs for clean-up after flooding incidents. These costs will be paid for through higher customer bills.
Anything that can actually be flushed down a toilet (i.e. it goes out of sight) can be considered ‘flushable’ as per the descriptions being used on many products. This means that if your toothbrush can be flushed, or even your pet hamster, then by definition it is flushable. However, this doesn’t mean that it won't cause blockages. Together with Wessex Water, we sent a letter to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) highlighting this issue. They told us that Trading Standards is a more appropriate route for this complaint. So, with the 21st Century Drainage Group (which includes government representatives, regulators, the UK water industry, environmental NGOs, and local authorities), we have contacted Trading Standards. We have been informed by trading standards that the definition of ‘flushable’ needs to be determined legally. We are currently looking into options available to proceed. We think that a person on the street would understand the term “flushable” to mean not causing issues to pipes and sewer systems, and that this should be reflected in how products are marketed. See Advertising Standards Agency Complaint.
The words ‘flushable’ and ‘dispersible’ are being used interchangeably by retailers. ‘Dispersible’ would seem to suggest that the product breaks up into tiny harmless pieces. However, there is no agreed definition of these terms at present and in any case most wet wipes contain plastic and therefore shouldn’t be flushed in our view because then the ‘dispersed’ components would inevitably include microplastics. Remember the Three Ps… Pee, Poo and Paper only down the loo! Even if the product says it is flushable, or that it will disperse.
Currently, there are two differing standards on what can be flushed. The standard set out by Water UK (the representative of the water companies who have to deal with stuff that actually ends up in our sewerage systems!). The second standard, often used to inform product labelling in the UK, is the EDANA Standard, which is designed by the product manufacturers themselves. We liken this to a drinks manufacturer setting safe drinking limits. The water companies are very clearly and loudly saying this standard does not comply with the Water Industry standards. The water companies have come together in an unprecedented step to present an international water industry position statement on non flushable and “flushable” labelled products, supported by 15 Countries and over 200 organisations. The statement makes clear what should and should not be disposed of via a toilet, and supports the view that wet wipes and or similar products should only be marketed with prominent and clear ‘do not flush / bin it’ labelling. For any product to be labelled or considered flushable it would have to pass the water industry test requirements, and the product should not contain plastic or regenerated cellulose - to ensure it is truly biodegradable and not causing more microplastics or other non-biodegradable materials to enter the oceans.
Wet wipes typically contain plastic. Once in our seas this plastic forms part of the greater problem of microplastics at sea. This microplastic, once in the oceans, is eaten by zooplankton, which forms the base of the food chain; they are eaten by the fish we eat. Wipes either whole or in pieces which end up as litter on our beaches, can then be mistaken for food by all sorts of precious marine life.
“Flushable” or “dispersible” wet wipes often need to be strengthened using “man-made” fibres e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-31969689. However, what the wet wipes are made of isn’t displayed on the products or required by law. MCS has been working really hard with retailers on this issue, and we are happy to report that most own-brand wipes sold by high street retailers do not contain plastic in their flushable wipes, or commitments have been given to remove them. We have also been teaming up with some academics who are looking at the biodegradability of the contents of these wipes (currently there is no test of this!).We are working on ensuring that all the material is fully biodegradable within all the environments a wet wipe encounters (e.g. freshwater, saline water as well as during sludge treatment).
We are currently in discussion with major international brands as well as high street retailers who have decided that they don’t adher to the requirements and are removing them. We are awaiting a date on when they are going to do this, but it looks promising.
Wet wipes are designed to be used once and once only. MCS would in principle like to see a reduction in the manufacturing and use of all of these types of products, because they tend to generate lots of waste in the environment as a result. However, we know wet wipes can be really handy, and so hope that consumers put these into the bin regardless of whether they are labeled flushable or otherwise environmentally friendly. Until we have certainty over what they contain, and how they behave once they have been flushed and enter aquatic environments. It’s the only way to be sure.
If the word ’biodegradable’ is used on a packet or inferred, that doesn’t tell us how long it takes for the product to breakdown, nor if they are able to breakdown in all environments e.g. freshwater vs. saltwater. This is particularly an issue where the product contains plastic as part of the weave. We know the consumers often think because an item is labelled biodegradable, it can be safely flushed. Sadly that is unlikely to be the case.
There was a time when wet wipes obviously didn’t exist, and for some uses you might want to explore whether there are re-usable or entirely naturally based products that can also do the job.
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