Earlier this month the UK government announced a plan to ban the use of plastic in wet wipes to tackle water pollution. Much of the news surrounding the ban suggests that removing the plastic will unclog sewers. Whilst removing plastics from the environment is great, a simple ban is not going to unclog the sewage system.  It needs to be combined with more education and further legislation…let’s take a curious dive into the reasons why.

Flushed away

Currently, wet wipes cause 93% of the blockages in sewers, costing £100 million a year to fix. Research shows that most blockage incidents could be prevented by wipes being properly disposed of, rather than flushed down the drain. Until we shift our behaviours, blockages are still going to occur (whether they contain plastic or not!).

But a plastic wet wipe ban is good, right?

Of course! Banning plastics in wet wipes is great, after all less plastics in the environment is always going to be a win. However, there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding the ban. It’s not the plastic alone in the wet wipes that causes blockages – any wipe flushed down the toilet can still block the system because of the length of time they take to break down.

To flush or not to flush?

So why are millions of people flushing hygiene products down the toilet? Many hygiene products market themselves as ‘flushable’, but unfortunately, this is another case of greenwashing.

Products marked as ‘flushable’ do only what is marked on the packet – they flush down the toilet successfully, but that’s it. There’s a misconception that these items will degrade in the sewage system, when in reality they are made of materials that aren’t easily broken down. They remain in the sewers and cause blockages which pollutes our environment.

Have a watch of this video for more information on the impacts that flushing wet wipes has on the environment.

Banning the word ‘flushable’

There are long-standing campaigns calling for a total ban on the word flushable as it is false advertising and greenwashing. In 2016, Wessex Water wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority, calling upon them to remove the word flushable from wet wipes. A newer campaign, Bin the Wipe, was launched by Water UK to help prevent people from flushing wet wipes.

Wet wipes aren’t the only culprit of clogs

So, would a ban on plastics in wet wipes and a ban of the word flushable on hygiene products fix the clogged sewers? Nope, there’s still more we need to do. Tampons, menstrual pads, condoms, cotton buds, nappies and other general litter are all being flushed down the toilet. All of which can clog the system and/or end up littering our rivers and coastline

Menstrual products are a major source of pollution in the sewers. Surveys and estimations suggest that on a daily basis, 2.5 million tampons, 1.4 million menstrual pads and 0.7 million panty liners are flushed. You can read more about this in our previous article on periods and plastic pollution.

Education and awareness are key

The variety and volume of items flushed down the toilet is a strong indication that we have a big problem with people not being aware that those items will simply stay in the system and not degrade. In fact, one survey found that 27% of people who admitted to flushing wet wipes, tampons or menstrual pads said they wouldn’t have done so if they were aware of the detriment to the environment. 

The 3Ps

So, what can we do? An easy way to remember what to flush is by remembering the 3P’s; poo, pee and (toilet) paper. Everything else should be disposed of safely and hygienically in a rubbish bin.

Take a look at this video to see the impact that not following the 3P rule can have.

Consequences of a wet wipe ban

Many environmentalists are suggesting an easier and more effective move would be a total ban on disposable wet wipes.

However, in our current social health and care system, a total ban on wet wipes and similar disposables would be ableist, making access to basic hygiene needs difficult for some. While reusable products can be a great option, it’s not a one size fits all solution.

Studies into period poverty and reusable menstrual products have identified that although the long-term investment of reusable products results in people saving money, the up-front cost is considerably more expensive than a single pack of disposable products. This high upfront cost is a major barrier for many individuals and communities.

Reusable items also require maintenance and cleaning between each use, whether that be reusable wipes, menstrual cups, washable pads or cotton buds. The washing process can be lengthy and require many extra steps compared to disposing of an item in the bin. For many disabled folks there is a reliance upon single-use items, as those necessary extra steps of using reusables can be a daunting or even impossible task. Not everybody has the energy or available help to wash and hang dry reusable hygiene items.

Reduce and reuse

To avoid isolating members of our community, instead of a total wet wipe ban, we need people who are able to reduce their consumption to do so. Reducing and reusing is important, but access to basic hygiene is a human right. We should channel greening efforts towards items which can easily be made reusable without impacting people’s basic human rights.

Above all, and for the sake of our sewers, the key message to remember is; dispose of single-use items safely and hygienically in the rubbish bin and never, ever, flush them!

Be Curious!

  • Check out our previous article on Plastic Free Periods.
  • Join the Bin the Wipe campaign. Check out their website for useful resources, including a downloadable toolkit.
  • Sign up to take the 3P pledge; only flush pee, poo and paper!
  • Take a look at the Thames Water ‘Bin it – Don’t block it’ campaign.
  • If you’re interested in exploring reusable wet wipe options, take a look at this handy guide for some great tips and tricks, including how to make your own wipes.