The UK government has increased its efforts to combat harmful plastics and clean up our waterways by pressing wet wipe manufacturers to answer concerns about how their products are labelled.
Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, has written to wet wipes manufacturers to express her concerns about the number of wet wipes flushed down UK toilets each year - between 2.1 and 2.9 billion - and has asked them to reconsider the use of the word 'flushable' on packaging to help prevent sewer blockages and water pollution.
She has told producers that labels saying ‘flushable’ or ‘fine to flush’ may encourage consumers to dispose of wipes down the toilet, rather than disposing of them responsibly in the bin. Wet wipes producers have now been asked to set out how they will address these concerns.
"It is vital that producers are more transparent with their guidance on flushability, as ultimately wet wipes that are dumped down the toilet can cause damage to our environment and water quality."
According to Water UK, wet wipes contribute to 94% of sewer blockages, which can lead to damage to properties and can result in sewage entering the environment. It is estimated water companies spend £100 million each year dealing with this.
In May, UK water minister Rebecca Pow attended a summit in Paris, where the UK, alongside 52 other members of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) to End Plastic Pollution (HAC), has signed a far-reaching Joint Ministerial Statement that calls for a range of mandatory provisions to be included in the global plastic pollution treaty, currently under negotiation.
“It is vital that producers are more transparent with their guidance on flushability, as ultimately wet wipes that are dumped down the toilet can cause damage to our environment and water quality," said Pow. “This is alongside the wider action we’re taking on water quality, including tougher enforcement for water companies, more investment, and tighter regulation to stop pollution happening in the first place.”
This action follows on from commitments made in the UK government’s Plan for Water to write to producers and advertising authorities about using the word ‘flushable’ on wet wipes packaging.
The Plan for Water also committed to a public consultation on the proposal to ban wet wipes containing plastic, responding to public calls to tackle the blight of plastic in our waterways and building on recent action from major retailers including Boots and Tesco. The government say it will work with industry to ensure plastic-free alternatives are always available to the public.
These plans build on previous efforts to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, including:
- One of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products announced in 2018
- Restrictions on the supply of single-use plastic straws drink stirrers and cotton buds in 2020.
- Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022 – a tax of £200 per tonne on plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into the UK, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic.
Wet wipes are not designed to be flushed down the toilet. When they are flushed, they can clump together and form blockages in the pipes. This can cause flooding and other problems.
Wet wipes can take hundreds of years to decompose. In waterways, they can harm fish and other wildlife.
If you use wet wipes, it is important to dispose of them properly. Please do not flush them down the toilet, even if they say they are 'flushable.' Instead, throw them away.