Wipes – not as clean as they seem

Face wipes, wet wipes, baby wipes, whichever you use, they’re causing the environment some serious problems and it’s not the first time we’ve heard about it.

Disposable, single-use wipes are a menace to the environment. They’re often mislabelled or not labelled clearly enough, and so they’re commonly flushed down the loo. The massive scale of the industry doesn’t help either. If we carry on using them at the rate we are now, it’s estimated we’ll be using more than a billion wipes a year by 2020. Sewers, especially in England, weren’t designed to cope with wipes and they cause blockages. They form ‘fatbergs’, blockages of all different sizes in sewers that are a combination of wipes and the grease that goes down the sink. These fatbergs can grow to be huge, one that weighed ten tonnes was removed from a West London sewer.

Most of these synthetic wipes contain plastic. Polyester is a synthetic plastic fibre that is long lasting, tough and multipurpose. These qualities make it a great ingredient for a wipe that’s designed for hygiene on the go, but really bad for the environment.

Wipes containing polyester are thought to take about 500 years to break down in landfill, and it’s estimated that we use about 920 million beauty wipes each year in the UK. So that’s a huge amount of long-lasting plastic-based waste that isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Another place where these wipes tend to stick around is the sea. They take hundreds of years to break down, and even when they’ve disappeared from sight they still live on in the form of microplastics. The wipes break down into plastic microfibres that are small enough to be eaten by even the tiniest marine organisms like plankton. These tiny pieces of plastic work their way up the food chain until they end up on our plates. ‘What they eat, we eat’, so wet wipes that get flushed away may actually end up in our fish and chips. Larger pieces cause a problem too. Just like plastic bags, sea turtles confuse wet wipes suspended in the water with jellyfish, causing choking or starvation.

The Marine Conservation Society has been championing the importance of the safe disposal of wipes, and in 2015 they did a nationwide ‘Great British Beach Clean’. They surveyed 4000 miles of British coastline and found, on average, 35 wipes washed up every kilometre.

So what do we do about it? If possible, stop using disposable wet wipes. Switch to cotton flannels – cotton is a natural fibre so will break down eventually, and fibres that end up at sea will properly biodegrade. If you do use wipes, choose natural cellulose fibre wipes and do not flush them.

One of the reasons so many wipes are flushed down the loo is the poor labelling on packaging. It’s often not clear what you can do with them, and so lots of people assume they can be flushed. You can sign this Marine Conservation Society petition to help get clearer disposal instructions on wipes packaging to limit their environmental impact.

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