Single Use Plastics
How wet wipes contribute to the rise of Single Use Plastics, the environmental scourge of century
Single Use Plastics
Single Use Plastics have become a topic of conversation recently in the UK press. Disposable but not completely degradable, single use plastics are convenient and are used widely in every day life. Single use plastics are items such as: wipes, plastic bags, plastic straws, coffee stirrers, drinks water bottles and food packaging. Single use plastics are cheap to produce and convenient for many applications. The use of wet wipes, facial wipes, baby wipes, towelettes, make up wipes, and cleaning wipes has risen in popularity over the last decade. Wipes are convenient to use, portable and lightweight.
In a 2018 a charity project run by Thames21 recorded more than 5,000 wet wipes in one single area of the Thames river bank near Hammersmith Bridge. Wipes that entered the London water system when flushed away accumulated on the river bank. The build up of wipes then started to create new shorelines. Manufacturers of wet wipes have introduced wipes made from wood pulp – however often these wipes are chemically treated – which effects how the wipes breaks down.
Microplastics in the food chain
Many people are not aware that most wet wipes contain polyester, a form of plastic plastic which can take thousands of years to degrade. Some break down into microplastics – the tiny plastic particles then enter the water system and can endanger marine life. Once microplastics have entered our waterways they also enter our food chain in the fish that we eat. Research has found that the chemicals released when plastics break down can also disrupt the human endocrine system when digested. These chemicals can contribute to the causes of cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many other ailments*.
Whilst most wipes say they are ‘flushable’, they are a major cause of blocked drains and one of the major contributing factors to the build up of ‘fatbergs’. In 2017 Water UK revealed wet wipes made up 93 per cent of the material that forms blockages costing the country around £100m every year.
Labeling On Single Use plastic Wipes
According to a Guardian article UK water firms have called for ‘do not flush’ labeling on wet wipes. The article read: ‘UK water companies are urging a national trading standards body to help stamp out “misleading” labeling on disposable wet wipes that are marketed as flushable but clog up drains and litter oceans at huge environmental cost.’. It continues that ‘The number of wet wipes washing up on beaches in the UK increased by more than 50% in 2014’.
‘War On Plastic’, the BBC program presented by Anita and Hugh outlined the need for clear labeling on wipes. In the program the presenters found that consumers were simply not aware that wipes contained plastic. In January 2019 Water UK launched the “fine to flush” for wet wipes. The logo can be used on labeling for wipes that have passed strict tests to ensure they will not contribute to sewer “fatbergs”. Wessex Water – the water authority that took part in the program, has been lobbying for more responsible branding and marketing of “flushable” wipes since 2016. They urge supermarkets to only stock products that are clearly labelled.
According to chemicalwatch.com, Defra it is working with manufacturers and water companies to understand which types of wet wipes cause sewer blockages. They want to ensure that labeling on the products “is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly”.
Action on Single Use Plastics
According to the Metro the wet wipes industry is set to increase: ‘By 2021, the global industry is set to be worth £16.5 billion.’ Michael Gove, Environment Secretary, announced a ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from April 2020. Although wipes were not included in this ban there have been identified as a major issue. “As part of our 25-year environment plan we have pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products that include plastic such as wet wipes.” – The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.