There’s nothing like a lump of fat, wet wipes, tampons, condoms, and nappies to wake you up to the fact the way you’re throwing away your waste needs a revamp.
In case you’d forgotten, a fatberg of nightmare proportions — literally as long as London's iconic Tower Bridge — was discovered lurking in the sewage system under Whitechapel in the capital in September last year.
And its legacy could be taking the shape of sanitary bins cropping up in men’s toilets around London, and maybe even further afield.
The environmental committee of the Greater London Assembly (GLA) — a 25-member elected body that scrutinises the mayor’s activities, and investigates issues that matter to Londoners — has released a new report exploring exactly how we dispose of our waste, and what’s it’s doing to the sewage system and the environment.
Its main conclusion is that we really have got to stop throwing away things that can’t be flushed — predominantly those single-use items containing plastics.
“Public awareness around single-use plastics, in terms of disposable water bottles and coffee cups, is high,” said Caroline Russell, chair of the GLA environment committee, on the launch of Tuesday’s report Single-Use Plastics: Unflushables. “But what about other daily products — wet wipes, nappies, and period products?”
“We urgently need to educate people not to flush these items down the toilet, and take some practical steps to help the situation,” she added.
While sanitary bins are a common feature in women’s toilets, the UK currently has no legal requirement to provide bins for the disposable of “unflushables” in men’s toilets — meaning there are very few options for men looking to dispose of wet wipes, disposable nappies, or other products.
“This means that men who use incontinence pads or other unflushable products either have to carry their personal waste to the next available bin, or flush,” said the report.
The GLA wants to change that, and is urging public and private sector organisations to bring in bins for men’s toilets. Germany, for example, is already on board. It has updated legislation in recent years and workplaces now have to install at least one bin, with a lid, in men’s toilets.
The main offenders include wet wipes, disposable nappies, incontinence products, and period products, according to the report.
You can’t flush this!— London Assembly (@LondonAssembly) August 14, 2018
Wet wipes and period products are often flushed down the toilet, where they combine with fat and oil to create #fatbergs and sewer blockages. https://t.co/Zyg9cEvffJ#Unflushablespic.twitter.com/EHMbZ7GY58
These are all products that we’re using more of every year, and they’re all products that a lot of people don’t realise can’t be flushed — largely due to confusing or misleading language on packaging.
“No wet wipe, period, or incontinence product currently on the market disintegrates fully when flushed,” reads the report. “Once flushed, there are a number of things that will happen to plastic products but fully disintegrating into water is not one of them.”
The first possibility is that flushed products may be picked up at local treatment works. Thames Water removes 30 tonnes of unflushable material every day from just one of its sites.
Second, unflushables can combine with fat, forming local sewer blockages and fatbergs. Sewer blockages currently cost Thames Water, and ultimately the consumer, £12 million a year.
Third, some products won’t be picked up at all and will end up in rivers and oceans, polluting the marine environment and contributing to astronomical amounts of ocean plastic.
In the UK alone, we use more than 11 billion wet wipes every year — up by 25% compared to five years ago.
Wipes, condoms, plastic, sanitary products, cotton wool, and dental floss are some of the biggest offenders in our sewers. Avoid a blockage by always throwing them in the bin, rather than flushing them down the toilet. #FightTheFatbergpic.twitter.com/CqDxRGYGD0— Thames Water (@thameswater) August 13, 2018
And according to a study from Water UK, the trade body representing all of the main water and sewerage companies in the country, released in December 2017, fond that wet wipes make up about 93% of material causing sewer blockages.
Meanwhile, we’re also getting through about 4 billion disposable nappies every year, and about 2.5 billion period products. At the same time, sales of unflushable incontinence products for men and women have risen by nearly 50% in the past year years.
So the importance of disposing of these products is an issue that can’t be ignored.
One important recommendation from the GLA is to improve labelling rules for singe-use products, so that consumers know how to dispose of them properly.
While tampons are estimated to contain about 5% plastic, sanitary pads about 90% plastic, and disposable nappies about 50%, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the packaging. Meanwhile, according to the report, wet wipes are often labelled as flushable, which sends out a confusing message.
“Consumers would find it hard to identify the presence of plastic in unflushables by looking at the packing alone,” said the report. “There is no legal requirement for manufacturers to list materials on the packaging of products.”
The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said in May that it would be working with wet wipe manufacturers and retailers to make sure that labelling is clear so people are aware of how to dispose of them. The government is even reported to be exploring the possibility of banning wet wipes.