When it comes to wet wipes, you might have been carefully buying the packet that promises the wipes inside are "flushable" — meaning that you can flush them down the toilet, guilt-free. Right?
Apparently not, according to a new investigation by BBC Radio 4’sCosting the Earth.
The investigation reportedly found that, in fact, the vast majority of so-called “flushable” wet wipe brands sold actually can't be safely flushed down the toilet.
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According to experts, "flushable" wet wipes routinely fail water industry tests designed to find out how well they disintegrate once they’ve been flushed.
Scientists at a water-testing lab in Swindon reportedly carried out the testing — by putting a wet wipe into water and shaking them around to mimic the journey they would have through the sewer.
And, according to their findings, none disintegrated sufficiently to pass the test.
As a result, campaigners and environmental groups are calling for a change in labelling on wet wipes packets — so that consumers aren’t misled into thinking they’re flushing their wet wipes responsibly.
“I think they’re a complete scourge on our society,” Matt Wheeldon, a director at Wessex Water, told the BBC, calling for action on banning wipes being labelled as flushable.
“Whoever came up with the bad idea didn’t think about the impact they’re going to have on the environment,” he said.
Water companies spend around £100 million a year clearing blockages caused by #wetwipes and other unflushable products - money that could otherwise be spent improving services.— Water UK (@WaterUK) November 13, 2018
Please remember to only flush the #3Ps, and put everything else in the bin! 🚽 pic.twitter.com/ghQcM8vgL1
Manufacturers say that their products have been properly tested, and that blockages are instead caused by non-flushable wipes.
Scientists reportedly said that the tests used by manufacturers, however, see the wipes shaken and moved about much more vigorously than they would be in a real journey through a sewer — meaning that they break down much more efficiently in tests than they would in real life.
It all might sound a bit trivial, but in reality unblocking sewers costs the UK around £100 million every year, according to Water UK, which represents major UK water and sewage companies.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Tony Griffiths, from United Utilities. “The amount of money that gets spent on dealing with blockages and disposing of this material could be reinvested in our ageing infrastructure.”
“If we’re not spending all this money, we could actually work to reduce customer bills,” he added.
But as well as causing sewer blockages, wet wipes that don’t disintegrate can also reach the seas and oceans — with their tiny plastic fibres causing damage to marine life.
In April, a London environmental organisation called Thames21 found over 5,400 wet wipes alongside the River Thames, in an area less than half the size of a tennis court.
Meanwhile, another environmental organisation City to Sea has championed the slogan “only pee, paper, and poo goes down the loo!” in an effort to remind people to steer clear of flushing anything extra down the toilet.
While the group is calling on manufacturers to label their products as “non-flushable,” it added: “Of course, there are things individuals can do — which is bin the wipes rather than flush them.”
The government is also working with manufacturers and water companies to help develop a plastic-free product that can be safely flushed, according to the BBC, as part of its efforts towards reducing Britain’s single-use plastic consumption.
The UK has already welcomed a ban on tiny plastic microbeads; and plastic straws, cotton buds, and plastic drink stirrers could also be banned by next year, according to the government.