Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Environment

The UK Might Ban Wet Wipes to Cut Down on Plastic Waste

Wet wipes are synonymous with the idea of a quick fix.

They’re used on everything from removing eye makeup to wiping baby's bottoms — but when it comes to plastic waste, they’re the furthest thing from convenient.

Wet wipes contain non-biodegradable plastic — and now it looks like the UK might ban them.

Take Action: Call on Governments to Say 'No' to Single-Use Plastics

The Department for the Environment (Defra) has said that it will continue to work with wet wipe manufacturers and retailers to ensure labelling is clear so people are aware how to dispose of them, and also encourage innovation to remove plastic from the products altogether.

But the BBC reports that in a statement released Monday, the government confirmed that part of its 25-year plan to reduce plastic waste, outlined at the start of the year, includes a pledge to “eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products like wet wipes.”

Wet wipes break down into microplastics that can easily be swallowed by marine life. But they also have a huge environmental impact closer to home: Despite often being marketed as “flushable,” wet wipes are the main cause of local sewer blockages because so many get thrown down the toilet.

Remember London’s largest-ever fatberg that clogged up a sewer in Whitechapel? The giant waste monster was the epitome of ickiness. It weighed more than 130 tonnes, measured more than 250 metres, and was made up of faeces, condoms and, more than anything else, wet wipes (I guess “wipe-berg” isn’t quite as catchy.)

Read More: Over 40 UK Companies Just Signed a Pact to Cut Plastic Pollution

Indeed, wet wipes are behind over 93 percent  of all blockages in British sewers, according to Water UK, the trade body behind all of the country’s water and sewage companies. They cause hundreds of thousands of blockages every year, and cost more than £100 million to remove. But without intervention, the wet wipe industry is expected to grow from a $3 billion international market to $4 billion by 2021.

In April, a London environmental organisation called Thames 21 found 5,452 wet wipes alongside the River Thames in a part of Hammersmith less than half the size of a tennis court. Campaigners say that they’re changing the shape of British riverbeds.

“Wet wipes are accumulating on the riverbed and affecting the shape of the riverbed,” Kirsten Downer, of Thames 21, told the Guardian earlier this month. “It looks natural but when you get close you can see that these clumps are composed of wet wipes mixed with twigs and mud.”

However, some parents still don’t seem too excited about the ban. Indeed, the internet appears split between people who find wet wipes  indispensable (in all the wrong ways) and those who think the environmental cost is just too high.

In Britain, there’s been some real change this year in terms of revolutionising how we look at plastic waste.

Read More: Plastic Straws, Stirrers, and Cotton Buds Could Soon Be Banned in England

Microbeads — the tiny microplastics that sneak into oceans from hair and beauty products — were banned just as Britain recovered from its New Year hangover in January. UK supermarket chain Iceland then announced it would become the world’s first mainstream retailer to eliminate plastic packaging entirely from its products by 2023, inspiring more than 200 MPs from seven political parties to demand even more. Now, dozens of companies have signed the UK Plastics Pact, a voluntary pledge to curb plastic pollution by 2025.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has already indicated that plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds could be banned too as the government cracks down on single-use plastic. A consultation on the ban will take place later this year.

In the meantime, please do forget to flush.

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on improving life on land and life below water, and on creating sustainable cities and communities. You can join us by taking action on these issues here.