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Wet Wipes - What's the Issue?

A blog post by Emma Glencross

Emma Glencross, Campaigns Officer for our My Beach, Your Beach campaign, discusses the use of wet wipes and why they should never be flushed. The theme of #WorldToiletDay 2022 is ‘making the invisible visible’ with a focus on the impacts of poor sanitation on groundwater.  Emma reminds us that although we may believe that wet wipes flushed no longer exist, they are causing visible impacts to our environment.

Wet wipes – what’s the issue?

You may have heard the call for a ban on wet wipes containing plastic.  You might be wondering what’s the issue?  What’s wrong with wet wipes?  Lots of people have different opinions on wet wipes: … “they are just like tissues and will break down” … “just put them in the bin, its fine” … “some people rely on wet wipes so it’s irresponsible to say to ban them” … “the packet says I can flush them” … “surely they’ll break down!”

So, what’s the issue? The issue is that most wet wipes contain plastic and wont breakdown for hundreds of years, and if they are flushed down the toilet, they can cause blockages. According to the Marine Conservation Society UK’s 2022 Great British Beach Clean, the number of wet wipes found on Scottish beaches has increased by 150% compared to 2021. This is an average of 63 wet wipes found per 100 meters! These are causing visible impacts to our beautiful beaches. 

Bin the wipes – don’t flush them

Scottish Water has been running a campaign this year to Bin the Wipes.  This is a great campaign reminding people to bin wet wipes and highlights the issues around flushing wet wipes down the toilet.  It links very well with one of the key campaign messages of our My Beach, Your Beach campaign: Only flush the 3Ps … pee, poo and toilet paper!  It seems simple but so many wipes end up down the toilet.  Unfortunately, these wipes combine with the fats that end up in the drains and form ‘fat bergs’. Eeuww!  The images of these are particularly disgusting!  While our 3Ps all start breaking down as soon as they are flushed, wet wipes stay in one piece and get caught on the other solid material down in the sewers which causes blockages.  Scottish Water statistics say that in recent years around 80% of the approximately 36,000 annual call outs for blockages were associated with wet wipes!  It is costing Scottish Water around £7 million annually to clear these blockages … imagine the improved infrastructure that money could go towards if the money wasn’t needed to clear blockages.

So, what can I do?  To make it easier to only flush the 3Ps make sure you have a bin in the bathroom.  It makes it so much easier to manage wet wipes and sanitary products to make sure they don’t end up flushed away.

Ensure wipes are plastic free

Most of the focus of the wipes campaign has been around stopping them being flushed down the toilet. However, wet wipes are not just used in the bathroom.  Ever since having children, I have been a frequent user of wet wipes. They’re great for sticky hands, sticky fingers, wiping down dirty picnic tables when you are out and about …the uses are endless!  However, I am sure most wet wipe users will have had a time when they were outside, a gust of wind comes up and blows the wipe away.  Most of the time it is possible to chase it down but sometimes that is just not possible.  It’s just not safe to chase a wind caught wet wipe on to a busy road, or into the water.  So, if there was no plastic in the wet wipes, this would be less of an issue.  Wipes containing plastic can take more than 100 years to break down, whereas a paper tissue starts to break down quite quickly.  I am not giving anyone an excuse for littering here … you always need to bin your litter, but sometimes it is unavoidable.  If wet wipes could break down, it would be one less thing hanging about in the system for decades to come.  Some companies are getting ahead of the game and many supermarkets in Scotland are already selling plastic free wipes.  

So, what can I do?  Shop around, and make sure that the next wet wipes you buy are plastic free.

Can’t we just ban them completely?

I remember in the past wondering why people used wet wipes at all and not just use a wet cloth or flannel … then I had kids and seemed to be using them constantly on pretty much all areas of my children! 

While the phase of using wipes in changing nappies eventually ends in most cases, for some families it doesn’t and wet wipes play a vital role in personal care for many people all through their lives.

However, there are many times when we can use a damp cloth and reduce consumption of these single use items.  If you are at home, think about whether a wet cloth will do the job just as well - before reaching for the wipe just for convenience.

So, what can I do?  Given the convenience and hygiene value of wet wipes, banning them completely is unlikely to happen, so our key asks are:

  • Always bin wet wipes.
  • Have a bin in the bathroom so you are not tempted to flush!
  • Only buy wipe wipes that are plastic free.
  • Before reaching for the packet of wipes, think about whether you can use a washable cloth.
  • Sign up to the join the wave campaign …

The photo below is a montage of wet wipes that I have found on Scottish beaches this year. … ranging from the freshly dropped picnic wet wipe to some manky old wet wipes of dubious origin!  In litter surveys of 7 Scottish beaches (the campaign beaches for MBYB), I have come across an average of 3 wipes per 100 m, with one instance of 57 wipes in an area 100 x 2 m!  Don’t make this your view of the beach.

To find out more about our My Beach, Your Beach campaign, visit the website.

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