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UK bill aims to ban plastic in wet wipes as massive blockages persist

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Wet wipes
The U.K. government recently conducted a consultation on single-use plastics, including the issue of banning plastic in wet wipes. The government is currently reviewing the results of the consultation and is expected to produce more information in the next few weeks. Photo Credit: New Africa, stock.adobe.com

A U.K. Member of Parliament is trying to ban plastic in wet wipes, and the discovery of an “island” of blocked-up wipes on the banks of the River Thames in west London is bringing her bill back into the spotlight.

Fleur Anderson, MP for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, tabled the bill last October, but a recent blockage of some 2,000 discarded wet wipes near Hammersmith has reignited MPs to advise residents against flushing wipes down the toilet at all.

“Everyone should bin and not flush wet wipes, but either way they contain plastic which gets in the environment and kills wildlife,” said Anderson in a statement. “My Bill comes in the same week as world leaders are meeting for COP26 and will show that the U.K. can take serious action and ban plastic from wet wipes made and sold in the U.K.,” she added.

At blockages like the one near Hammersmith Bridge, wet wipes are found in densities of between 50 to 200 per square metres.

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Anderson said that not only are wet wipes behind 93% of blockages in U.K. sewers, but are even “changing the shape of our rivers as they pile up on beds and banks.” She also said that the U.K. discards some 11 billion wet wipes every year, or 163 wet wipes per person.

The cost of clearing some 300,000 sewer blockages each year costs utilities some $156 million, Anderson said.

The U.K. government recently conducted a consultation on single-use plastics, including the issue of banning plastic in wet wipes. The government is currently reviewing the results of the consultation and is expected to produce more information in the next few weeks.

Anderson said she wants to see a move towards alternatives such as bamboo fibre wipes, plant-based wipes, organic cotton wipes, or washable and reusable cloths.

“There are so many different types of wet wipes for sale but the labelling is really confusing,” said Anderson. “It really isn’t easy to determine which wet wipes contain plastic and which are ‘fine to flush’. There will be thousands of people out there right now using wet wipes every day with no idea that they are using a single-use plastic and with no idea of the harm that it is doing to our water systems and our marine environments.”

U.K. environmental charity Thames21 is also calling for the ban of plastic in wet wipes, noting that when wipes end up on the foreshore, they break down into microplastic pieces and damage aquatic life in the Thames’ ecosystem.

Last year, volunteers for the charity picked up more than 27,000 wipes over the space of two days at a separate site next to Battersea Bridge. In another area, one mound grew by 1.4m in height and covered the area of two tennis courts in just five years.

In 2019, a “fatberg” the size of a bus, weighing 40 tonnes, was cleared from London’s sewers.

This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s August 2022 issue:

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