Wet Wipes & Plastic: The Hidden Menace?

2018 has seen the United Kingdom join the fight against ocean plastics in a big way. On January 9th, the ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics went into effect, many organisations are now working towards banning other disposable plastic culprits such as plastic straws,  But one enemy combatant has escaped this recent round of attacks, probably because most people don’t realise it contains plastic at all: the wet wipe.

Thames21, the charity that mobilizes volunteers to clean London’s 400 miles of waterways, calls wet wipes the ‘hidden plastic menace’ because they sink to the bottom of rivers, unlike bottles, which tend to float. According to Thames21, the sodden wipes combine with mud and debris to create mounds along with slow-moving parts of the Thames, actually changing the shape of the river’s foreshore. The charity’s April 2017 Big Count event, which ‘was the first attempt to quantify the impact of wet wipes on the capital’s river’, counted 4,500 wipes in a 154 square meter section of the Thames foreshore south of the Hammersmith Bridge, the largest quantity ever recorded in one place in Britain.

River Thames where many disposed of wet wipes are found

Wet wipes don’t just pollute the Thames. Emma Cunningham, Senior Pollution Campaign Officer at the Marine Conservation Society, announced that the Society’s 2017 Great British Beach Clean turned up 27 wet wipes per 100 metres of beach surveyed, a 94 percent increase from 2016.

According to both the MCS and Thames21, wet wipes are a problem for fish and other marine life as well. The wet wipes that don’t end up in fatbergs or bond with the shore disintegrate and the plastic they contain separates into microparticles that move up through the marine foodweb when zooplankton consume them.

Another reason that wet wipes might be termed a “hidden plastic menace” is that the average user wouldn’t necessarily know that they contain plastic, and they are often marketed as flushable even though they damage sewer systems and the marine environment when disposed of down the toilet.

Part of the problem, as The Marine Conservation Society, points out in the FAQ for its Wet Wipes Turn Nasty Campaign, is competing for definitions of the word ‘flushable’. Many product descriptions use it to mean ‘anything that can actually be flushed down the toilet’. The MCS is looking into changing the legal definition of the word ‘to mean not causing issues to pipes and sewer systems’.

The debate around flushability has gotten even more heated in the United States. When Washington D.C. passed a law that wipes sold in the city could only be labelled ‘”flushable” if they break apart “in a short period of time after flushing in the low-force conditions of a sewer system”’, wet-wipes manufacturer Kimberly-Clark sued the city. Part of their argument hinged on the assertion that the law violated their First Amendment right to free speech since it would obligate them to label as unflushable products they believe could be safely flushed. In December, a judge barred the city from enforcing the law against Kimberly-Clark, but said it was free to regulate other wet-wipes manufacturers.

Advocates in the United Kingdom have had more success convincing retailers and manufacturers to change their labelling. EDANA, for example, the nonwovens trade association, is encouraging its members to put a ‘Do Not Flush’ label on packages of wet wipes, but the MCS contents that ‘more needs to be done to help encourage individuals to stop using the toilet as a bin’.

So the next time you’re tempted to flush a wet wipe down the toilet, think of the fish and the sewage workers, and throw it in the trash instead.

Olivia Rosane is a freelance writer with an interest in ecological and social justice. She writes regularly for EcoWatch, and her work has also appeared in Real Life Magazine, YES! Magazine, and Lady Science. She has a Master’s in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. Follow her at @orosane.
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