Wet wipes causing serious problems to the environment, new study

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 13 December 2017

As a monster ‘fatberg’ is set to become a museum display next year, there’s fresh proof that flushing wipes is a major cause of sewer blockages.

© Natasha Ewins

This year during our Great British Beach Clean survey we found over 27 wet wipes for every 100m of beach our volunteers surveyed - that’s a 94% increase between 2016 and 17.

Emma Cunningham,
MCS Senior Pollution Campaigns Officer.

A new report by Water UK, the membership body for UK water providers, reveals wipes made up around 93% of the material causing the sewer blockages which the study investigated. A high proportion are baby wipes which are designed not to be flushed.

Part of one of London’ biggest fatbergs will go on display in the Museum of London next year. The 250m (820ft) monster had been clogging up the sewers under Whitechapel and it took engineers from Thames Water nine weeks to remove it. The dimensions make it longer than Tower Bridge and as heavy as 11 double-decker buses!

Despite the name, fatbergs are made up of more wet wipe than the fats oils and greases it suggests. The study from Water UK showed that wipes made up around 93% of the material causing the sewer blockages which it investigated.

Less than 1% of the domestic waste in the blockages was identified as made up of products which are designed to be flushed, such as toilet paper.

Emma Cunningham, MCS Senior Pollution Campaigns Officer says the average litter levels of wet wipes on beaches has increased massively so its not surprising to see that over 90% make up fatbergs: “This year during our Great British Beach Clean survey we found over 27 wet wipes for every 100m of beach our volunteers surveyed - that’s a 94% increase between 2016 and 17.

“When you pour fat, grease or oil down the sink, it cools and turns hard and teams up with other items that shouldn’t be flushed like wet wipes as well as cotton bud sticks and other unflushables.”

There are approximately 300,000 sewer blockages every year, costing the country £100 million – money which could be taken off bills or spent on improving services.

Thousands of properties suffer sewer flooding caused by these blockages every year in the UK, creating misery for homeowners and businesses and leading to high clean-up bills and increased insurance costs. Sewer flooding also has a major impact on the environment. The new research shows that most of these type of incidents could be avoided by the wipes being disposed of properly rather than being flushed down toilets.

Retailers in the UK who have taken the lead with more visible Do Not Flush labelling are being praised for their efforts, but more needs to be done to help encourage individuals to stop using the toilet as a bin.

Water UK’s Director of Corporate Affairs, Rae Stewart, said: “This study proves that flushing wipes down the toilet is a major cause of sewer blockages, and that means it’s a problem we can all do something about. Water companies spend billions of pounds every year making our water and sewerage services world class, but our sewerage system is just not designed to handle things like baby wipes which don’t break down in water. The good news is that by taking action we can stop the horror people face when their homes are flooded with raw sewage.

“There are things that water companies can do, such as improve education about what should and shouldn’t be flushed. There are things manufacturers can do, such as make labelling clearer on non-flushable products. And, of course, there are things individuals can do – which is bin the wipes rather than flush them.”

The investigation of 54 sewer blockages across the UK forms the main part of the report published today, titled the Wipes in Sewer Blockage Study. It was jointly funded and supported by Water UK, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and EDANA. EDANA is the trade association for the nonwovens industry, which includes the wipes sector.

The report concluded that a renewed united and concerted approach is required to raise awareness among consumers of what can and cannot be flushed.

Since January 2017, EDANA has been promoting the use of a ‘Do Not Flush’ symbol on the front of packaging to help stop non-flushable baby wipes, cosmetic wipes and household wipes being flushed down Britain’s toilets. EDANA members and retailers are being encouraged to adopt the front-of-pack ‘Do Not Flush’ logo on non-flushable wipes by October 2018.

Marines Lagemaat, Scientific and Technical Affairs Director of EDANA, said: “We are glad we could contribute to the study and welcome the recommendations of the report. This initiative demonstrates the benefits of cooperation between the key stakeholders and we look forward to further collaboration with waste water organisations. It is clear that further outreach to the public is needed on this issue to inform them about the difference between flushable and non-flushable wipes and the importance of checking the label on proper disposal.”

“We strongly urge all manufacturers and retailers to clearly add “do not flush” and improve labelling faster than they are doing already to help stem the flow,” says Emma Cunningham. “This report highlights our call that only the 3p’s, pee, poo and paper should be flushed down the toilet, everything else MUST go in the bin. You can help by sharing the message on our website and don’t pour fats, oils and greases down the sink, let them cool and dispose of them in the bin.”

Actions you can take

  1. Join the fight against the 'unflushables'

Did you know?…

Every day millions of microplastics enter the sea from personal care products such as scrubs and toothpastes

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be 6 times the size of the UK

MCS first launched the Good Beach Guide in 1987 as a book to highlight the woeful state of the UK’s bathing waters