To flush or not to flush? The results are in from our wet wipe survey

Date posted: 10 February 2021

Late last year we surveyed the UK’s high street retailers to find out how they’re performing when it comes to testing, labelling and removing plastic from their own brand wet wipes and sanitary products.

Wet Wipe FB
© Natasha Ewins

All of this is crucial to stemming the tide of wet wipes that end up on our beaches and in the sea every 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.

The results are in, and we found that most retailers are falling behind on all counts…

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

Meanwhile, 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 our summer deadline. Health and beauty retailer Superdrug have stated they have no plans to test for Fine to Flush at all.

What is Fine to Flush?

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.

Wet wipe survey 2020 - Fine to Flush

Dr Laura Foster, our Head of Clean Seas 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. In the case of these products, correct labelling is crucial so that these wipes aren’t flushed. Encouragingly, all retailers we surveyed clearly state ‘Do Not Flush’ on their own brand, non-flushable wipes. We’re hoping 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.

Did you know?

At last year’s Great British Beach Clean an average of 18 wet wipes were found for every 100 metres of coastline cleaned and surveyed, making them the third most common litter item on UK beaches in 2020.

We also checked in on 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.

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.”

We’re continuing to call for legislation to reduce the amount of single-use plastic polluting the environment, ranging 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.

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