The UK Announces It May Ban Wet Wipes

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CC BY 1.0. The Thames, no wet wipes in sight/ Lloyd Alter

A response to an environmental organization finding over 5,000 wipes in 1250 square feet of a beach by the Thames.

TreeHugger Sami has noted that the UK could ban single-use plastics as early as next year. Now, according to a statement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), they are going to include a particular TreeHugger bête noire, wet wipes.

“As part of our 25-year environment plan, we have pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products like wet wipes."

This comes shortly after Thames21, an environmental group that monitors the river, did a cleanup of the Thames near the Hammersmith bridge and collected 5453 wet wipes in a 116 M2 (1250 SF) stretch of beach.

“The sheer quantity of these wet wipes shows the urgency of this problem”, said Debbie Leach, Chief Executive of Thames21. “As a country, action is being taken about other products which contain plastic such as bottles and cotton buds. We now need to widen our attention to include wet wipes and sanitary products which contain plastic and are being flushed into our rivers.”

Unfortunately, the Guardian's Bibi van der Zee notes that the wipes are changing the shape of the Thames, and that what look like natural mounds are in fact clumps of wet wipes, mud and twigs. And they are not going away.

Wet wipes are now a booming industry with their own conference and even a “moist towelette” online museum. The sector is busily innovating, and alongside baby wipes you can now buy personal care wipes, household wipes, industrial wipes, pet wipes and speciality anti-malarial wipes. The sector is expected to grow about 6-7% a year, and to expand from a $3bn international market to $4bn by 2021.

We have noted before that they are certainly growing; when I did a poll among readers two years ago, I found that almost 18 percent of respondents used wipes, and we have been complaining about them for years. Another online survey found wipes leading toilet paper.

Defra notes that it is "continuing to work with manufacturers and retailers of wet wipes to make sure labelling on packaging is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly." The problem is that proper disposal means putting it in the garbage, not flushing it down the toilet. Almost nobody is going to do that after wiping their bottom with it. A ban, or a reformation without plastic, is the only way to solve this problem.

But as Sami said about the general single use plastics ban, "let's not get too carried away just yet." I suspect there is going to be serious pushback unless the industry reformulates. This is another product that started as a convenience but for many has somehow become a necessity for cleaning up babies and bottoms.

What are the alternatives? Katherine has shown how to make your own; I have suggested that people should use bidets. It is true that once you stop using toilet paper it is really hard to go back; this will be interesting to watch.

combined sewer

Combined sewer, common in older cities/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

UPDATE: Many have wondered how all the wet wipes get into the Thames. London has a combined sewer system where storm and wastewater go through the same pipes. If it rains more than a quarter inch per hour the system cannot cope and the overflow goes directly into the Thames.