Wet wipe on beach Natasha Ewins

Analysing the high street’s wet wipe claims

2 minute read

Victoria Riglen, Head of Communications and Campaigns

10 Feb 2021

High street retailers are falling short when it comes to testing, labelling and removing plastic from their own-brand wet wipes.

The Marine Conservation Society has released the results of its 2020 wet wipe survey which analyses how high street retailers are performing when it comes to testing, labelling and removing plastic from their own-brand products.

Why does labelling matter?

Appropriate labelling and testing is crucial to stemming the tide of wet wipes that end up on the UK’s beaches each year as a result of being wrongly flushed. The plastic content of many wet wipes contributes not just to beach litter and fatbergs, but also to microplastic pollution in our seas.

At last year’s Great British Beach Clean, Marine Conservation Society volunteers found an average of 18 wet wipes per 100m of coastline, making them the third most common litter item on UK beaches in 2020.

Aldi is the only UK retailer to have certified all its own-brand flushable wipes with the Fine to Flush standard. The retailer’s wipes have been stringently tested to ensure they break down in the UK’s sewer system.

Volunteers found an average of 18 wet wipes per 100m of coastline, making them the third most common litter item on UK beaches in 2020.

Boots, Morrison’s, Tesco and Waitrose have committed to having Fine to Flush status by June 2021 while Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Superdrug and Wilko are yet to make a commitment to meet the charity’s summer deadline. Health and beauty retailer Superdrug has stated it has no plans to test for Fine to Flush at all.

What is Fine to Flush?

Fine to Flush is an official standard, introduced by Water UK, identifying which wet wipes can be flushed down toilets safely. Wet wipes are tested against the conditions of the UK’s sewer system to ensure they break down and don’t cause sewer blockages, fatbergs or end up on beaches.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society said: “Many retailers were aware of the Fine to Flush standard months in advance of its introduction in 2019. Our research has shown that, unfortunately, retailers simply aren’t doing enough. Either they’re not taking urgent action or, in the case of Superdrug, they’re taking no action at all. Without firm commitments, legislation is going to be needed to make sure that Fine to Flush is mandatory.”

Some wipes, such as those used to remove makeup or for cleaning, haven’t been marketed as flushable but may still be disposed of that way. Correct labelling is crucial to ensure this doesn't happen. Encouragingly, all retailers surveyed by the charity clearly state ‘Do Not Flush’ on their own-brand, non-flushable wipes. The Marine Conservation Society hopes that retailers will extend this labelling to all of their own-brand sanitary products however, only three retailers currently do this: Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

As part of its survey, the Marine Conservation Society also assessed retailers’ commitments to remove plastic from their non-flushable wet wipes. Boots, Waitrose and Wilko are the only retailers to have already removed plastic from their wipes, while others have committed to doing so by the end of this year. The only retailers not to have committed to removing plastic from non-flushable wet wipes by the end of the year are Aldi, ASDA, Co-op and Lidl.

Next steps

Laura continues: “By removing plastic from wet wipes we can move further away from our reliance on single-use plastics. Wet wipes should be considered similarly to items like cotton bud sticks and straws which are, in the most part, avoidable. That’s why UK governments need to ban plastic wet wipes and ensure that only products which have passed the Fine to Flush standard can be sold as flushable – ensuring that anything that gets flushed will break down and not contribute to the plastic soup in our seas.”

The Marine Conservation Society is continuing to call for legislation to reduce the amount of single-use plastic polluting the environment. This ranges from the banning of plastic wipes to clear labelling on other sanitary products (including non-plastic wipes) and for producers to cover the costs of clean ups and consumer awareness raising campaigns, alongside the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility.