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The problem with wet wipes

They’re convenient, they’re everywhere, and we use them for lots of different purposes, but wet wipes are a huge problem for our environment. That’s why many countries are considering banning wet wipes that contain plastic. But what exactly is the problem with them?

What are wet wipes, and why are they an issue?

Wet wipes is the term most commonly used for the disposable damp wipes used for cleaning babies during nappy changes, but those aren’t the only products that the term applies to. Their uses expanded rapidly over the last twenty years; people now regularly use face wipes for removing makeup, and cleaning wipes for cleaning kitchens or bathrooms, and more.

The issue is that more than 90% of wet wipes contain plastic, and that because these are designed to be ‘disposable’ they end up in the environment. This can either be in landfill or many are often flushed down the toilet, which causes a whole load of other problems.

Either way, plastic takes an incredibly long time to break down in the environment and can release toxic chemicals as it does so, so they are environmental pollutants.

Wet wipes and pollution
Never flush wet wipes – always put them in the bin instead

Never flush wet wipes!

Wet wipes should never, ever be flushed down the toilet.

Because plastic-containing wet wipes are very strong, they often get caught, snagged or trapped in the sewerage system, and can then trap other wet wipes or debris and cause build-ups and blockages, which can also cause sewerage leaks. Rivers in the UK are already highly polluted and many water companies sadly release raw sewerage if there are high levels or floods, so sadly you may have already seen wet wipes caught in riverside branches and plants from those releases.

What’s being done?

The UK government has proposed a ban on plastic-containing wet wipes in England to help reduce blockages and river releases in the sewerage system. Several supermarkets, such as Tescos and Boots, have already banned plastic-containing wet wipes from sale.

Wet wipes and pollution - choose plastic-free wipes
If you need to use wipes, choose plastic-free ones. Though it’s even better to use a reusable cloth!

What can I do?

Firstly, don’t buy plastic containing wet wipes! Instead, opt for reusable clothes where possible, which can be washed and used again, or if you have to use wet wipes, choose ones that are plastic free.

Secondly, even if the plastic-free wet wipes says it’s flushable, absolutely DO NOT flush them down the toilet. They’re still bulky, take a while to break down and can cause problems in the sewerage system. Put them in the bin instead.

Thirdly, you can use your voice to call for more retailers to stop selling plastic-containing wet wipes, and for the government to take more action on this issue. Our Climate Letters activity provides a great template and guide you can adapt to use in this way. Why not get a group to write together or co-sign a letter? You could write to your local MP and local retailers.

Read more about this issue:

BBC – Plastic wet wipes to be banned in England to prevent pollution

Keep Scotland Beautiful – Wet wipes; what’s the issue?

Friends of the Earth – Keep wet wipes out of our rivers (and oceans)

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