Wet wipes and sewage debris
Wet wipes and other sanitary items like pads and tampons end up on our beaches and in the environment as they’re often mistakenly flushed down the toilet.
Items flushed down the toilet are called sewage related debris. They can enter the environment when sewers overflow due to heavy rainfall or insufficient capacity in the sewage network.
Wet wipes are one of the most common litter items we find on UK beaches.
Impact on marine life
Sanitary items often contain plastics which exist for long periods of time in the marine environment. The plastic gradually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which are then eaten by marine life. This can impact feeding behaviour, growth, development, reproduction and lifespan.
What can be done?
We believe that stopping pollution at source is the most effective way to reduce the amount of sewage related debris entering the marine environment. We can do this by:
- Supporting consumers to move to reusable products, encouraging a circular economy.
- Banning all avoidable single-use plastic in wet wipes and other sanitary items, such as tampon applicators (where alternatives exist).
- Applying Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to all sanitary products (not just those that contain plastic) and clean-up costs.
- Making the water industry’s ‘Fine to Flush’ specification a legal requirement for flushable wet wipes.
- Improved labelling and consumer awareness to promote correct disposal.
Banning plastic in single-use wet wipes
We're calling for a ban on plastic in single-use wet wipes. In a 2021 YouGov survey, 82% of people in England said they would support a ban on wet wipes containing plastic, with only 4% opposed to a ban.
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.
Progress to reduce the wet wipe problem
In England, we supported the 10 Minute Rule Bill to ban plastic in wet wipes (Plastics (wet wipes) Bill) November 2021, which received strong cross-party support from MPs and the public. In February 2022, we responded to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) call for evidence on single-use plastic items, including wet wipes. In October 2023, the UK Government announced a consultation to ban plastic in wet wipes.
In spring 2022, we submitted evidence to the Welsh government on the impact of wet wipes in the marine environment, calling for a ban on plastic in wet wipes. Welsh Water have publicly called for a ban on plastic in wet wipes.
In Scotland, we submitted evidence in the single-use plastic consultation, the marine litter strategy and the circular economy bill. We have supported Scottish Water in their Nature Calls Campaign and are calling for better monitoring of the storm overflows in our parliamentary briefing.
UK retailer wet wipe survey
We’ve been calling on major UK high street retailers to remove plastic from their own brand wet wipes. We've also been asking that all wet wipes and other sanitary items are clearly labelled 'Do Not Flush', and that if wet wipes are labelled as flushable, they must meet the ‘Fine to Flush’ standard.
Since we began campaigning, all retailers now have 'Do Not Flush' on the front of their non-flushable wet wipes, and none of their flushable wet wipes now contain plastic.
We have also seen progress in more retailers improving, or committing to improve, their labelling on other sanitary products. More retailers have committed to removing plastic from all of their own brand wet wipes.
Retailers committed to removing plastic from all own brand wet wipes
Retailers who have already removed plastic from their own brand wet wipes: Boots, Co-Op, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Wilko.
Retailers who have committed to removing plastic from their own brand wet wipes by the end of 2022: Aldi, Morrisons, M&S, Superdrug, Tesco.
Retailers who haven't committed to or haven't given a timeline of when plastic will be removed from their own brand wet wipes: Asda, Lidl
Retailers' own brand wet wipes meet the 'fine to flush' standard
Retailers whose own brand wet wipes already meet the 'fine to flush' standard: Aldi, Boots, Lidl, Morrisons, Waitrose.
Retailers who are committed to making sure their own brand wet wipes meet the 'fine to flush' standard by the end of 2022: Sainsbury's, Tesco.
Retailers who haven't committed or haven't given a timeline to make sure their own brand wet wipes meet the 'fine to flush' standard: Asda, Superdrug, Wilko.
Retailers who don't sell own brand 'fine to flush' wet wipes: Co-Op, M&S.
Retailers' own brand sanitary products clearly state 'do not flush'
Retailers who already clearly state 'do not flush' on all their own brand sanitary products: Aldi, Asda, Co-Op, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose
Retailers who are committed to clearly stating 'do not flush' on all their own brand sanitary products by the end of 2022: Lidl, Morrisons, Superdrug, Wilko
Retailers who haven't committed to or haven't given a timeline for when they will clearly state 'do not flush' on their own brand sanitary products: Boots
Retailers who don't sell own brand sanitary products: M&S