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Plastic Wet Wipes Banned: Another Repeat of Failed Measures?

Following the ban on controversial plastic wet wipes, we examine the impact of the policy for water pollution and the environment.

Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey, has announced that wet wipes containing plastic will be banned in England under plans to tackle water pollution.

The ban on plastic-based wipes is set to take effect next year following a consultation, Ms Coffey said.

The move to tackle water pollution

The move is part of a broader strategy, called Plan for Water, to improve water quality in England, where no river or waterway is considered clean. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is also looking at a potential ban on a variety of “forever chemicals” or PFAS that aims to tackle pollution from farming and run-off from road traffic.

According to a parliamentary report published in 2022, pollution from intensive farming such as chicken farms is one of the most common ways that rivers become contaminated.

Wet wipes contribute to 93 percent of sewer blockages

Wet wipes are a major contributor to sewer blockages, with 9 percent of sewer blockages being caused by wipes that are flushed down toilets, including so-called fatbergs. 

According to Water UK, which represents the water sector, clearing these blockages costs around £100 million a year to clean up.

Approximately 90 percent of wipes contained plastic in 2021. As plastic doesn’t decompose, the wipes become snagged and stick together over time, obstructing sewage flow through pipes.

The plan to ban plastic in wet wipes is subject to a public consultation

In the Plan for Water strategy, the government said it wants to ban plastic wet wipes subject to a public consultation, adding they will work with industries to make sure eco-friendly alternatives are available to consumers. 

“Our proposal is to ban plastic from wet wipes,” Ms Coffey said, adding that a consultation needed to be put in place first. “It’s a legal requirement to make sure that we can go ahead with any ban,” she said.

Opposition and environment groups criticised the plan as weak

However, environment groups criticised the plan as weak and opposition MPs have accused the government of repeating failed measures “that give the green light to sewage dumping”.

During Good Morning Britain, Feargal Sharkey described the announcement as “muddled and confused,” adding that the government has made three similar announcements in the past five years. 

The announcement was also criticised by the Liberal Democrats, who said the government first pledged to ban plastic in wet wipes in 2018. The party’s environment spokesperson, Tim Farron, said: “Yet again the Conservative government is taking the public for fools by re-announcing a wet wipe policy from five years ago. This is a complete farce.”

Matt Browne, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “There is much to welcome in the multiple threads of today’s water announcements. Less plastic waste from wet wipes, bringing forward infrastructure investment, stronger forever chemical regulation, and funding from fines to deliver river restoration are all individually positive.

“But what we are still waiting to see is a comprehensive plan built around delivering on a long-term target for the health of our waters’ and an ambitious UK chemicals strategy to weave these individual threads into a world-leading tapestry of action to restore our rivers and seas.

“With so much of our wildlife and waters struggling under the weight of pollution, development, and overuse only a well-focused, well-resourced and far-reaching plan will turn the tide for nature.”

Fleur Anderson MP

Shadow Paymaster General, Fleur Anderson has been a vocal advocate on banning plastic wet wipes. Ms Anderson introduced a Private Members Bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of plastic wipes last year. On today’s announcement Ms Anderson said:

“After two long years of campaigning, two parliamentary bills, two drawn out consultations and endless hours meeting manufacturers, retailers, water companies and even counting wet wipes pile 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 this isn’t just a shuffling of the deck chairs and the Government actually deliver this time. I’ll be making sure they do and my campaign is far from over.

“I’d like to thank all the organisations who have helped achieve this big win, including Thames21, the Marine Conservation Society, Greener UK, Tesco, Boots, the Water Research Centre Group and parliamentary colleagues from all parties.”

To watch our discussion with Ms Anderson, see below.

Final thought

While a public consultation on plans to ban plastic in wet wipes will get the ball rolling, the UK needs more than an empty promise to tackle water pollution. 

This isn’t the first time the government has promised to ban plastic wipes. In 2018, they announced plans to eliminate plastic waste including wet wipes. And during a 2021 consultation on banning wet wipes, 96% of people said they supported the idea. Yet following another consultation, the government decided against banning plastic wet wipes. 

The Welsh government also proposed a ban on plastic in wet wipes but this has not yet been implemented while Scotland consulted on a ban which has not seen further action.

While there are some biodegradable alternatives on the shelves, it was reported that 90% of wipes contained plastic in 2021. As the government fails to implement a ban, major companies such as Boots and Tesco are taking it upon themselves to stop the sale of wet wipes which contain plastic from their shops and address plastic pollution.

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