UK Water Firms Call for ‘do not flush’ Labelling on Wet Wipes

Letter to trading standards body calls for manufacturers to remove ‘misleading’ labelling to prevent wipes from blocking sewers and washing up on beaches.

UK Water Firms Call for 'do not flush' Labelling on Wet Wipes.
A member of Thames Water’s sewer team points out wet wipes clogging up the sewer in Putney, London. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian

UK water companies are urging a national trading standards body to help stamp out “misleading” labelling on disposable wet wipes that are marketed as flushable but clog up drains and litter oceans at huge environmental cost.

They are calling on manufacturers of moist toilet tissues and other non-biodegradable cleaning cloths such as bathroom cleaning wipes – which are routinely flushed away by consumers in their toilets – to ensure that such products are prominently labelled as not flushable and are to be disposed of in a bin.

In a letter to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), Tony Harrington of the trade body Water UK urges the institute to launch its own investigation into an issue which he says is “adversely” affecting consumers and the environment.

“Wet wipes and other products which find their way into our sewers are not dissolvable like standard toilet paper, but instead may contain materials which do not disintegrate in the same way that a paper-based tissue does,” he wrote in the letter to CTSI head of policy, Melissa Dring. “This can lead to materials like plastics being released into the environment (similar to microbeads, a product that has received considerable media attention, and which the government has committed to ban for cosmetics), substances which we are now aware could have consequences for the human food chain.”

Harrington, who is chair of the 21st Century Drainage Programme Board, a Water UK-sponsored sector group looking at more resilient urban drainage systems, said that misleading labelling and instructions are fuelling the problem.

“It is our belief that whilst manufacturers are still able to advertise their products as being ‘flushable’, or sell them with no suitable guidance on the label as to disposal, consumers will continue to dispose of them by incorrectly flushing them into the sewer system,” the letter reads. “As far as we can see, having clear and prominently visible ‘Do Not Flush’ labelling and removing the word ‘flushable’ from all packaging is the only acceptable and environmentally responsible way forward, while available products fail to meet water industry standards for flushability.”

In the UK alone, water companies spend approximately £88m of customers’ money clearing an estimated 360,000 blockages annually in the sewerage network. Half of these blockages are avoidable and are caused by the incorrect disposal of wet wipes and other hygiene products via toilets.

Putting wet wipes down the toilet can cause blockages that lead to massive buildups of fat, known as “fatbergs”. In 2013 a lump of congealed fat the size of a bus was found in sewers beneath London. Last year a spokesperson for Southern Water said Kent residents were dumping 2,000 tonnes of wet wipes into sewers. New York city has spent $18m (£12.3m) on “wipe-related equipment problems” in the past five years.

In Australia this summer, the consumer advocacy group Choice warned – after extensive testing – that disposable wipes marketed as “flushable” still posed an expensive blockage threat to household plumbing.

The submission of the letter to trading standards is an unprecedented action by water companies to press for change and follows campaigning by charities such as the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). The number of wet wipes washing up on beaches in the UK increased by more than 50% in 2014, said the charity, which is also drumming up support for its campaign through an online petition.

“When we talk to people about the campaign, they are genuinely shocked that something which could clog up their pipes and drains is being labelled as flushable,” said Dr Laura Foster, head of pollution at the MCS. “Harm is caused as these products contain plastics or other non-biodegradable materials. We advise people only to flush the three Ps: pee, poo and paper.”

The MCS will forward the petition to Trading Standards shortly, providing further evidence that there is customer confusion on labelling and that flushable should mean a product is safe to flush and does not cause harm to the marine environment.


Source: The Guardian