Plastic wet wipes, defined as single-use cleaning tissues or towels which are moistened, could be prohibited in the UK under plans to tackle water pollution, environment minister Therese Coffey has told UK media outlets. The ban would come into force in the next year after a consultation and is part of a larger plan to improve overall water quality.
Whether it’s for removing makeup or performing general cleaning duties, wet wipes have become an increasingly commonplace part of our lives. They were invented in the US in the 1960s and are used around the world. During the coronavirus pandemic, their use increased dramatically, with antibacterial wipes used to clean surfaces.
However, their use has a negative effect on the planet. Most wet wipes in the market are made from artificial materials, such as polyester, which don’t biodegrade in the environment. Despite this, many people still think it’s safe to flush them down the toilet, which contributes to the global plastic problem and causes sewer blockages.
The UK had already said in 2018 it wanted to ban wet wipes. This was followed by a consultation in 2021, with 96% of the people claiming they supported the idea. However, plans didn’t move forward. Earlier this year, the government agreed to ban single-use plastic plates, bowls, cutlery and certain types of polystyrene cups.
The next steps
The wet wipe ban is only one element of a wider strategy called Plan for Water through which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to improve the UK’s water quality. The plan includes a ban on some types of forever chemicals and wipes and also tackles pollution from farming and run-off from road traffic.
However, moving ahead with a ban on wet wipes or PFAS would require a public consultation, which the government said it will launch soon. A report by Water UK, a body that represents the water industry, studied over 50 sewage blockages across the UK and found that wet wipes account for 93% of the material causing sewer blockages.
The plan also includes unlimited penalties to water companies for dumping sewage, the BBC said. The funds would be reinvested into a new Water Restoration Fund that would support community-led schemes to clean up waterways. Companies will also have to spend more on infrastructure and improve the water supply’s resilience to drought.
“I completely understand the concerns that people have about the health and resilience of our waters, which is why I am setting out this plan for a truly national effort to protect and improve them,” environment secretary Therese Coffey told the Independent. “This is not straightforward but I take the issue extremely seriously.”
Opposition parties questioned the government’s plans. Jim McMahon, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, told BBC the announcement is “nothing more than a shuffling of the deck chairs and a reheating of old, failed measures.” Liberal Democrat Environment spokesperson Tim Farron said the announcement was a “complete farce”.
Some companies in the UK have already stopped the sale of plastic wet wipes from their stores. Boots pharmacy, one of the biggest sellers of wet wipes in the UK, end sales in 2022, replacing them with plant-based alternatives. Tesco, the UK’s largest grocer, also banned sales of plastic wet wipes last year, as well as The Body Shop.