Fleur Anderson MPShadow Paymaster General and Putney MP
Shadow Paymaster General and Putney MP, Fleur Anderson, speaks to Chamber about her award-winning campaign to ban plastic in wet wipes.
We all know that we need fast and effective legislative action to protect our environment. This is why, for the last two years, I’ve been campaigning to introduce a piece of common-sense environmental legislation: a Bill to ban plastic in wet wipes.
Plastic in Wet Wipes
There has been recent campaign success but there is still further to go. Tesco and Boots have already stopped sales of any wet wipes made from plastic and the Government included a commitment to ban plastic in wet wipes in the recent water strategy, Future Water.
Billions of wet wipes a year are used across the UK and this number is increasing. Using microplastics in production means that they don’t break down when flushed out into rivers and seas, which results in sewer blockages and widespread damage to marine life and environments. Plastic itself is usually made using energy from fossil fuel sources and so, is disastrous for our environment at both the point of production and disposal. However, wet wipes can be made with strong, sustainable alternative materials, such as cellulose.
Wet wipes cause around 300,000 water pipe blockages per year, costing water companies around £100 million to clear. That is money that then ends up on our water bills each month. Alongside this campaign, I am glad that all the UK water companies have come together for the first time to campaign to encourage consumers to ‘Bin the Wipe’ and not flush any wipes at all.
I am fighting this campaign not only for my riverside residents in Putney, the constituency I represent in South West London, but for people across the country who care about protecting our environment. A recent poll showed that the ban has support from 96 per cent of the public and I have had a lot of contact with parents of babies who use wet wipes and want to know that they are not damaging the planet. Labelling has been too confusing, with a variety of claims made. A simple ban would solve this problem.
Wet Wipe Island
Wet wipes have garnered huge national attention recently, not least due to the ‘wet wipe island’ which has developed in the River Thames. I have visited several times, with film crews, with volunteers from Thames 21, and with the Port of London Authority – who did the studies to expose it. The island is a metre deep, larger than two tennis courts, and made up of millions of stuck-together wet wipes. It has changed the course of the river. It is a horrible result of sewage being flushed into the Thames, which must also be stopped.
Before the pandemic, 90 per cent of the astonishing 11 billion wet wipes that were used in the UK each year contained some form of plastic – an unbelievable 163 wet wipes for every person in the UK, every year. The plastic in wet wipes breaks down into microplastics, which can be ingested by marine and riverine animals, and enters our food chain and water supply. The environmental damage caused by plastic waste is causing an ecological disaster, with 100 million marine animals dying each year from plastic waste alone.
So, the need for a bill banning plastic in wet wipes is clear. The bill I have introduced to do so has strong cross-party support – with support from more than 30 MPs, as well as endorsement from organisations including the Marine Conservation Society, Thames 21, Thames Water, the Green Alliance, and the WWF. My campaign won the Environment APPG’s Campaign of the Year award for 2022.
In April 2023, the Government announced that wet wipes containing plastic will be banned in England under plans to tackle water pollution. After two long years of campaigning, two parliamentary bills, two drawn-out consultations, and endless hours meeting manufacturers, retailers, and water companies, and even counting the wet wipes piled up on the Thames foreshore, the Government seem to be backing my campaign at last.
There is not a moment to lose, so I’m disappointed to hear there will be yet another consultation. In 2018, a similar promise was made, so I hope that the Government actually delivers this time. We do not need more consultation. We need action and a date for the ban to come into force.
I am delighted that Tesco and Boots, who have already banned the sale of wet wipes containing plastic, are leading the way. I’m now calling on all retailers to follow their example. It is in everyone’s interest to stop the sale of plastic – customers are incredibly vocal in demanding products that don’t damage our planet and they want to do the right thing. The move by Tesco and Boots to join my campaign against plastic wet wipes will mean a potential five billion fewer plastic wet wipes will be sold every year.
Any ban that is forthcoming must include the following components.
- First, it must establish a timetable by which wet wipe manufacturers will phase out the use of plastic in wet wipes.
- Second, it must identify which professional healthcare wipes, if any, should be exempt from the plastic phase-out timetable and keep these to a minimum.
- Third, it must take steps to ensure that the costs of transitioning to non-plastic wet wipes are not transferred to the consumer or public services and apply extended producer responsibility to wet wipes producers.
- Finally, it must adopt, with immediate effect, the European Union Single Use Plastics Directive on wet wipe labelling.
I have given this policy package to Ministers on a plate and they have the backing of water companies, retailers, and manufacturers.
It is not every day a government is presented with an opportunity as easy to implement as this. It has the backing of the public, public bodies, producers, parliamentarians, and the people who know best. For the sake of our rivers and marine environment, I hope they take it, and do so without delay.