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Wet wipes have become a staple in our daily routines, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While they’re undeniably convenient, they’re also responsible for a staggering 93% of sewer blockages in the UK, costing around £100 million each year to address. Astonishingly, 90% of these wipes contain plastic, and 22% of people admit to flushing them down the toilet, despite knowing the dangers. With around 300,000 sewer blockages annually due to “fatbergs” and wet wipes as primary culprits, the government has initiated public consultations on banning plastic-containing wet wipes.
The global wet wipe industry is booming, projected to produce 1.63 million tons of material in 2023, amounting to an approximate value of $2.84 billion (£2.04 billion). However, little is known about their environmental impact, as manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the materials used in the wipes, only the intentionally added ingredients.
Wet wipes are made from non-woven fibers, either natural or petroleum-based, and contain chemicals like cleaning or disinfecting agents. Some wipes are marketed as “flushable,” designed to release fibers when exposed to water, but improper disposal creates both plastic and chemical hazards for the environment.
Plastic-containing wipes break down slowly, persisting for centuries in landfills. When released into the environment, they generate microplastic Pollution in the form of microfibers, affecting ecosystems and potentially human health through the food chain. Even “flushable” wipes have been found to contain seven different types of plastics, making them a source of microplastic Pollution. Furthermore, plastics can absorb contaminants like metals, pesticides, and pathogens, allowing Pollution to be transported across vast distances.
To combat this issue, plastic-free wipe products are emerging, but even natural fiber wipes can cause sewer blockages if not disposed of correctly. Caution is advised when considering bio-based plastics, as their environmental impact data is limited. Instead, reusable washable products offer a more sustainable alternative with a significantly smaller environmental footprint.
To promote responsible consumer choices, manufacturers should be required to clearly label the materials used in wet wipes. As individuals, we can make a difference by choosing reusable alternatives and disposing of wet wipes correctly. So let’s be conscious of our choices and their impact on our planet, and take a step towards a cleaner and more sustainable future.
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