By Frank Moy WRc expert in Wastewater Infrastructure br>
Waving Goodbye to Wet Wipes Island
Consultant Engineer Frank Moy is examining the changing world of wet wipes! The flushing of plastic wet wipes has contributed to sewer blockages and the formation of ‘wet wipe islands’ in UK watercourses. Frank discusses the UK’s upcoming ban on single-use plastics and the shift towards sustainable wet wipe manufacturing.
In January 2023, as part of the drive to reduce plastic pollution of the environment, the UK government announced a ban of single-use plastics. Coming into force in October 2023, the ban will cover plastic plates, cutlery, bowls, trays, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers. On 4th April, following discussion of extending the ban to other products, Defra Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey announced a ban on wet wipes containing plastic from 2024. WRc welcome this announcement and the positive impact this potential ban will have on the environment and sewer network performance.
UK consumers use billions of wet wipes each year, many of which have historically been manufactured using plastic fibres. Disposal of these products via the sewer system has caused significant problems for water companies over the years. A study conducted by WRc in 2017, on behalf of Water UK in association with EDANA, demonstrated that up to 93% of sewer blockages and pump clogs contained wipes manufactured using plastic. The majority of these were plastic ‘baby wipes’. The disposal of wipes in household waste is also problematic as plastic wipes will take over one hundred years to biodegrade in landfill.
Surveys indicate strong support for such a ban of plastic wipes. However, due to their prevalence and versatility, with uses ranging from personal care to household cleansing, UK consumers are unlikely to stop using, and therefore disposing of, wet wipes. Fortunately, there is an alternative to using plastic fibres in wipe manufacture. Wipes can be produced using natural cellulose fibres that break up and do not add to the plastic pollution of the environment. This has resulted in the transformation of the moist toilet tissue sector and the creation of a flushability specification.
In 2018, Water UK commissioned WRc to develop a testing specification to assess the impact of wipes manufactured using cellulose fibres. Approved wipes must disperse properly in sewage and cannot contain plastics, so that they do not contribute to operational issues in the sewer network. The specification, based on the findings of an ISO technical committee, was published in 2019 with Water UK and led to the launch of the Fine to Flush scheme. Through this scheme, manufacturers and retailers can demonstrate the ethical benefits of their products to customers using the ‘Fine to Flush’ logo. Manufacturers and retailers of moist toilet tissues have engaged with the scheme and over 140 wipe products have been certified to date. As a result, it is now difficult to find a moist toilet tissue containing plastics on supermarket shelves.
The challenge has been to engage manufacturers and retailers of baby wipes to face the environmental need to reduce the use of plastics where an alternative is available. The ban on single-use plastic manufactured wipes will hasten the shift away from plastics, and the Fine to Flush scheme will be available to those who wish to demonstrate that they are meeting their environmental responsibilities.
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The original version of this article was published in www.wrcgroup.com