Fatbergs – those revolting sewer mountains made of wet wipes, grease and other gunk – have been cropping up all over the place in the past year or so, from London and Cardiff to Staffordshire and Devon.
As well as causing trouble in wastewater systems, wipes can find their way into oceans. Along with other types of plastic pollution, they can cause long-term problems for sea creatures and the marine environment.
Wet wipes made up more than 90% of the material causing sewer blockages that Water UK investigated in 2017.
Friends of the Earth commissioned a report from research group Eunomia, Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution [PDF]. This reveals our everyday habits that result in all sorts of plastics getting into our seas. Sometimes from seemingly unlikely sources, such as wet wipes.
What's so wrong with wet wipes?
Millions of us have grabbed a wet wipe to clean our hands, faces, worktops, children, and almost everything else at some point. What harm can it do, we might think – they’re only little squares of wet tissue. Aren’t they?
But now people are realising that wet wipes, like so many other everyday throwaway items, contain plastic, and aren’t so harmless after all.
Three particular stories in the past year have highlighted the growing concerns over wet wipes.
Wet wipe worry 1: the fatberg
As we now know, the smelly grey boulders of congealed gunk clogging up the world’s sewers are in fact stuffed full of wet wipes.
It's a gross and smelly reminder that those seemingly innocuous moistened sheets don’t disappear or dissolve when we drop them down the toilet. Even if they’re labeled as flushable.
If you have a strong stomach, have a look at this fatberg video. (Warning: contains rats too.)
Wet wipe worry 2: the plastic riverbed
River-cleaning teams have found that the hundreds of thousands of wet wipes flushed down toilets in London have actually formed a new riverbed in the Thames. As in other rivers around the world too.
Everyday disposable wet wipes have somehow managed to become an unignorable part of the topography of our towns and cities. And that’s before they even reach the sea and cause untold havoc there.
Wet wipe worry 3: the ban that isn’t a ban
In 2018 the government reacted to the wet wipe problem.
Wipes weren’t mentioned specifically in its 25-year environment plan, but a spokesperson for Defra (the environment department) came out and confirmed that its pledge to “eliminate all avoidable plastic waste” includes “single-use products like wet wipes.”
But soon afterwards, the government stated: “We have not announced plans to ban wet wipes".
Instead, it said, “Our focus for wet wipes is to work with manufacturers and water companies to develop a product that does not contain plastic and can be safely flushed. We are also continuing to work with industry to make sure labelling on the packaging of these products is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly.”
We agree with the report from Eunomia – we think government and industry both need to do more, and quickly.
Where do wet wipes go from here?
Despite there never being much prospect of an imminent ban, the media story provoked worry and some anger from parents, carers and others who have come to rely quite heavily on the convenience and multi-usefulness of wet wipes.
So we thought we’d look more closely at our use of and reliance on wet wipes. What are these wipes made from, exactly? How much plastic do they contain? Are they all as bad as each other? What alternatives are there (how did people ever manage without wet wipes anyway)? How should you dispose of any you do use? And is the government’s solution to wet wipes the best one?
WOW – the world of wipes and nonwovens
WOW is the acronym for World of Wipes – the international business event organised in the US every June by the multi-billion dollar wet wipes and “nonwovens” industry.
Its trade body INDA (originally the International Nonwovens and Disposables Association) was formed in 1968, and now has a European arm EDANA.
“Nonwovens” refers to fibrous materials (natural or synthetic) that are bonded together using resins or chemicals or pressure, rather than knitted or woven together like traditional cloth or yarns. There are lots of clever manufacturing terms like “crosslapping” and “needlepunching” involved.
Wet wipes are the most familiar and widely-used form of nonwovens.
Are wet wipes necessity or convenience?
Figures from EDANA show that wipes for “hygiene and personal care” account for around 44% of all nonwoven use across Europe. Surgical and medical uses, which you might consider most vital, make up only 3%.
Total production of nonwovens in Greater Europe (including Russia and Scandinavia) has more than doubled since the year 2000. By 2015 it was around 2.4 million tonnes per year. Germany is by far the biggest producer.
EDANA’s website suggests how important it thinks nonwovens and disposable wipes have become in our societies when it claims: “Modern life would be quite literally impossible without them.”
To be honest, we don’t really think it should be up to wet wipe manufacturers to decide how we can and can’t live. So let’s start by having a look at the facts about wet wipes, and our options.
How many wet wipes are we using?
Part of the confusion about the use and disposal of wipes comes from the fact that a lot of people still think of them, and sometimes refer to them, as “tissues”. They’re not.
There are now dozens of different types of wet wipes available. Baby wipes, hand wipes, make-up wipes, kitchen wipes, surgical and medical wipes, all kinds of anti-bacterial or cleaning wipes.
If you can think of any possible situation where any part of your anatomy, or your home, or car, or pet might get the slightest bit sticky, icky or less than pristine, someone somewhere will have created a wipe for that.
The wet-wipe boom grew wings in the 1990s when big players like Kimberly-Clark (makers of Huggies nappies) and Procter & Gamble (who make Pampers) began pushing baby wipes as the new must-have parental convenience.
Nice-Pak, the huge US manufacturer originally founded by wet wipe inventor Arthur Julius, produces more than 125 billion wipes a year, just by themselves.
To give you a sense of scale, if an average wet wipe is roughly a 6-inch (15cm) square, then one year’s worth of wet wipes, from just that one company, would stretch to the moon and back more than 24 times.
What are wet wipes made of?
If you look at the ingredients listed on a packet of wet wipes they often just list the stuff that’s been added to the wipe material, which might seem rather odd.
For instance the list might start with water (which prefers to be known as Aqua nowadays), then something reassuringly soothing like aloe vera, if you’re lucky. Or sometimes a chemical formula.
But in fact the material forming the wipe itself, whether or not it’s listed, is most likely a non-woven blend of natural and synthetic fibres. In the case of Pampers baby wipes, for example, the material is described on their website as a mix of “regenerated cellulose” and polypropylene. Some other wet wipes can contain different types of plastic, like polyester or polyethylene.
The basic idea is that the cellulose fibres add absorbency and softness while the plastic fibres add extra strength. And the blend will be varied depending on the application. Softer for skincare purposes, stronger for floor cleaning, for example.
The wet mixture added to the substrate will obviously vary too, from natural gentle cleansers to harsher detergents and disinfectants.
What’s the problem with wet wipe materials?
You’re probably already familiar with the trouble that can be caused by plastic waste in the environment. To sum it up, plastic doesn’t go away. It just sheds fibres and slowly breaks down into smaller particles, polluting land, rivers and oceans, and entering wildlife and human food chains.
But even the more eco-friendly-sounding “regenerated cellulose” might not be as benign as you’d hope.
Cellulose is of course the stuff that plants are made of. But “regenerated cellulose” is the result of processing natural plant materials, sometimes cotton but often wood or bamboo, so they can be made into cloth-like materials. It’s called things like viscose, rayon or lyocell, or sometimes known by brandnames like Tencel.
There’s controversy over how fast or fully these processed materials do or don’t biodegrade in the natural environment. (Not to mention the potential pollution than can sometimes be caused by their production.)
Are wet wipes flushable, or not?
The short sharp answer is: no. The longer answer is: definitely not.
In fact even when a wet-wipe package claims its contents are flushable, biodegradable or compostable – they won’t degrade quickly enough to avoid being a menace down our drains and in our waterways.
The general rule is, don’t flush that wet wipe. Bin it.
That’s not just what Friends of the Earth thinks. The industry body Water UK (with the backing of other international water and sewage companies) wrote to the Trading Standards Institute in 2016 asking specifically that no wet wipes should be called flushable. In fact they wanted all wet wipes to be clearly labeled “Do not flush” – at least until a standard for truly flushable wipes is agreed.
Water UK pointed out in its letter that: “In the UK alone, water companies spend approximately £88 million of our customer’s money clearing something like 360,000 blockages that occur annually in the sewerage network. It is estimated that perhaps half of these blockages are avoidable and are caused by the incorrect disposal of wet wipes and other hygiene products via the toilet.”
Some wet wipes are clearly made to be more robust and last longer than others. Those are sometimes clearly labelled “Do not flush”. But even when they don’t say that, and even if they’re labeled flushable, it doesn’t mean they will dissolve or biodegrade the way toilet paper does.
Here's a short Thames Water video to that effect...
Flushable doesn’t mean eco-friendly
Making wet wipe material more “dispersible” is not the same as environmentally friendly. It just means any plastics or other synthetics in the material break apart more easily into smaller pieces.
The bigger pieces can become a choking hazard to wildlife and visible pollution in the natural environment. As they break down further tiny particles of plastic are spread into our waterways and oceans.
Eunomia report conclusions on wet wipes
The Eunomia report contains recommendations for regulators, businesses and the public.
What should government do on wet wipes?
The UK government has so far not shown any appetite for regulation, instead encouraging the water and wipe industries to jointly develop their own code of practice. We agree with the Eunomia report when it says:
- Wet wipe industry standards should be made compulsory by law, not just voluntary.
- Relying on effective communication to help the user differentiate between flushable and non-flushable wipes is highly unlikely to eliminate the problem entirely.
- The government should go further and ban the sale of any kind of wipes described as flushable. This means that the wipes could still exist, but they can no longer be marketed as flushable.
The government could also consider expanding the legal criteria so that:
- Synthetic fibres are not included in any single-use wet wipe.
- All single-use wet wipes must be labelled with a “do not flush” logo.
- All single-use wipes must be labelled with the material composition.
If the flushability standard is not made compulsory, manufacturers of wipes that don’t conform to the standard should be required to contribute to the cost of unblocking sewers (in line with their contribution to the problem). This would also add extra cost to the product and make it less attractive for buyers.
What should wet wipe makers and retailers do?
We know wet wipe manufacturers will want to avoid being branded as the cause of fatbergs and riverbed gunk.
Makers of synthetic wet wipes should make it clear on the packaging that these should not be flushed. Ideally the labelling should be standardised so that consumers can instantly recognise the warning – for instance the logo recommended by EDANA.
At the moment 90% of wipes sold in the UK are non-flushable. Retailers should only stock products that contain a prominent “do not flush” logo. They should also include information at the point of sale to help advise their customers about correct disposal procedures.
Retailers should also offer more choices, for instance selling reusables and toilet paper spray next to wet wipes.
What should wet wipe users do?
We know some people will clearly find it hard to give up wet wipe use altogether – in some medical or sanitary care situations for example.
We admit it’s pretty hard to imagine going back to using solely traditional or natural products in every single circumstance.
But we can all do our bit. If we really can't give up wet wipes completely just yet, at least make sure we only use the genuinely biodegradable/compostable ones – or make our own – and absolutely never flush them.
The best way to dispose of wet wipes is in the waste bin, not down the toilet – even if they are labelled flushable.
But the best option is still avoidance. Say no to the wipe, if you possibly can.
Your views on wet wipes – for and against
Lots of Friends of the Earth supporters have already come clean about wet wipes on our Facebook page. Here’s a short selection of the comments:
Against wet wipes…
Yvonne Jackson: “Had nearly a week of my back garden being flooded with sewer waste because so many people have put wet wipes down the loo it blocked the whole section. With all the hot weather we had over the bank holiday it's not pleasant out there.”
Vicky Nicole: “As soon as I've used up all the ones I've bought I will be switching to flannels. I'm not buying any more. I've never flushed any away but feel bad knowing they don't decompose and will just end up on a landfill site. It's cheaper having flannels anyway.”
Gerlinde Hunt: “You know there was a time without these stupid wet wipes.”
Nick Seymour: “People managed perfectly well before they existed.”
Nicole Herd: “Kids’ hands can be cleaned with water and soap. You know, that magic combination that we were all hopefully taught about when we were young?”
Bryony Cairncross: “Cheeky wipes or cut-up flannel. If you want wet ones just put them in a small sealable lunch box with some water then take home in a wet bag and chuck them in the washing machine. Washing at 60 kills germs so stick them in with towels or sheets.”
Ruth Anna Crook: “Why don't they just make them out of biodegradable materials instead, like hemp?”
Carolyn Jones: “If we want there to be a world for our children and grandchildren we obviously can’t carry on the way we are doing, just because it's convenient.”
In partial praise of wet wipes…
Jess Duque: “Unfortunately, I rely on wipes of various kinds because of disability, but I would love if the cheap stores did biodegradable ones.”
Sam Cragg: “If you think I'm cleaning my baby with a bit of rag or I'm not leaving the house until she's potty trained you can think again. And I’m not carrying poo-stained rags around with me either. Germs should be thrown away. Once again, the general public are banned from using things or made to feel bad when they do. How about making manufacturers change their ways?”
Verity Smart: “We can still use the things that assist us while being responsible to the planet at the same time. Buy Kinder by Nature wipes for example which are biodegradable, compostable and polyester-free cloth. Don’t flush them, bin them or stick them in your compost bin (or food waste collection).”
Lorraine Beiley: “Won’t flannels be counter-productive? The amount of energy/water/detergent when millions of parents/nursery workers use them to clean babies up to 7-8 times a day?”
“It’s always the consumer’s fault and never the manufacturers and quite frankly I am sick of being blamed for environment damage when I am doing so much in terms of recycling/reducing consumption of plastic etc.”
Kelly McKeever: “Playgroups etc usually don't have their own washing machines. I'm sure hardworking parents who work full-time already have enough washing to do of clothes etc when they get home to try and spend quality time with their kids, but instead they would have dirty flannels and towels that would be kept in a stinking bag (probably plastic one) to wash too. Not all parents have the luxury of being at home all the time.
“If all wipes were made bio-friendly in the first place that would help, but that's down to companies and government... Also if people weren't so lazy by putting them in the toilet too, that would help… Ideal world, eh... lol.”
Michael Elizabeth: “I think if they ban wet wipes here I just won’t have kids.”
Life without wet wipes
To finish up, blogger Bettina (@plasticfreehackney/@thezerowaster) shares her thoughts on trying to bring up children without resorting to wet wipes.
“Wipes were quite peripheral in my life until I had kids and started hanging around the messier demographic of the population... Suddenly it felt like there was no circumstance in which a wipe wasn’t pulled out – from a snotty nose to a nappy change.
“When I do use them I do so sparingly and place them inside the nappy before disposing of them in the appropriate bin – never flushing them.
“At home the change mat is in the bathroom meaning my little one can be unceremoniously craned from the mat straight into the bath where he can be hosed down – a much cleaner option than any number of wipes could provide.
“After meals is another area where wipes seem to have infiltrated. Instead I have a stack of cheap flannels I bought when my eldest was weaning and are still going strong 4 years later. These get chucked into the washing machine as and when necessary ready to be reused.
“You can buy reusable wet wipes. You can go lo-fi and just buy the wipes you can soak in an old takeaway container with some chamomile tea. Or Cheeky Wipes have a wide selection, including a starter kit that has everything you need to get going.
“I’m also not a fan of disinfectant wipes marketed at parents for cleaning surfaces that your baby might touch. A few germs are good for your baby and help build their immune system. I would much rather they be exposed to those than the bleach and other chemicals in the product. And there’s nothing that a bit of bicarb and vinegar and a reusable cloth can’t clean.”
Read Bettina's blog about bringing up a family with less plastic.