Government has stepped up action to tackle harmful plastics and clean up our waterways by challenging producers of wet wipes to address concerns over how they label their products. Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has written to wet wipes producers setting out her concerns about the number of wet wipes that are flushed down UK toilets – between 2.1 – 2.9 billion each year – and has asked them to reconsider the use of the word ‘flushable’ on packaging to help prevent sewer blockages and water pollution.
Wet wipes contribute to 94 percent of sewer blockages, which can lead to damage to properties and can result in sewage-related litter entering the environment. It is estimated that water companies spend £100m each year dealing with this. The Environment Secretary has told producers that labels saying ‘flushable’ or ‘fine to flush’ may encourage consumers to dispose of wipes down the toilet, rather than disposing of them responsibly in the bin. Wet wipes producers have now been asked to set out how they will address these concerns.
Water Minister Rebecca Pow attended a summit in Paris, where the UK, alongside 52 other members of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) to End Plastic Pollution, has signed a far-reaching Joint Ministerial Statement that calls for a range of mandatory provisions to be included in the global plastic pollution treaty, currently under negotiation.
Water Minister, Rebecca Pow said “It is vital that producers are more transparent with their guidance on flushability, as ultimately wet wipes that are dumped down the toilet can cause damage to our environment and water quality. This is alongside the wider action we’re taking on water quality, including tougher enforcement for water companies, more investment and tighter regulation to stop pollution happening in the first place.” This action follows on from commitments made in the government’s Plan for Water to write to producers and advertising authorities about using the word ‘flushable’ on wet wipes packaging.
The Plan for Water also committed to a public consultation on the proposal to ban wet wipes containing plastic, responding to public calls to tackle the blight of plastic in our waterways and building on recent action from major retailers including Boots and Tesco. The government will work with industry and making sure plastic-free alternatives are always available to the public.
These plans build on our previous efforts to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, including:
- One of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products announced in 2018
- Restrictions on the supply of single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds in 2020.
- Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022 – a tax of £200 per tonne on plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into the UK, that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic.
Following the huge success of the 5p single-use carrier bag charge, in May 2021 we also increased the minimum charge to 10p and extended it to all retailers, taking billions of bags out of circulation.
The government has reannounced plans to ban plastic wet wipes that clog up Britain’s sewers, amid increasing pressure to tackle water pollution. The government said it will launch a public consultation on the measure, building on a pledge from major retailers like Boots and Tesco who have vowed to stop selling the products. The measure is part of a wider plan to clean up and improve the UK’s water quality, including tougher enforcement for those who pollute.
However, opposition MPs have accused the government of reheating failed measures “that give the green light to sewage dumping”. The government has previously pledged to crack down on wet wipes, first in 2018 and again in 2021.
While there are some biodegradable options on the shelves, most products contain plastics which do not break down – causing them to clog up pipes over time. In its Plan for Water published on Monday night, the government said it wants to ban these subject to a public consultation, and will work with industry to make sure environmentally friendly alternatives are available. Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told the BBC the consultation is “a legal requirement to make sure that we can go ahead with any ban” and the proposal “is to ban plastic from wet wipes”.
But the announcement was criticised by the Lib Dems, who also released data last night showing that water companies dumped sewage on English Blue Flag beaches more than 1,500 times in 2022. Blue Flag status is supposed to indicate clean coastline and water. The party’s environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “Yet again the Conservative government is taking the public for fools by re-announcing a wet wipe policy from five years ago. This is a complete farce.”
The wet wipes plan is one of a series of measures the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said will improve England’s water quality. Other proposals in the Plan for Water include restrictions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in firefighting foam, textiles, cleaning products, paints and varnishes. The government also wants to encourage water companies to install more smart meters in households to reduce water demand and give farmers £34m to improve pollution from slurry.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, welcomed the ambition but said it was “unclear how all of the initiatives will fit together, while the health of our waters continues to deteriorate. Crucially, this plan must help to significantly reduce pollution from agriculture, as well as that caused by the water industry.”.
Responding to the Plan for Water, Labour’s shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: “This announcement is nothing more than a shuffling of the deck chairs and a reheating of old, failed measures that simply give the green light for sewage dumping to continue for decades to come. This is the third sham of a Tory water plan since the summer. There’s nothing in it that tells us how, if or when they will end the Tory sewage scandal.”
Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay said: “After years of burying their heads, ministers have finally surfaced to tackle the scourge of sewage and pollution in our waterways and along our coasts. It’s clear the Conservatives can also smell a local election in the air and are only acting in response to public pressure. The actions are too little too late, and still leave the water industry in private hands able to profit from failure.”
What would happen if it goes ahead?
The sale of the vast majority of wet wipes – any that contain plastic – would be banned in the UK. A number of companies, including pharmacy chain Boots and supermarket giant Tesco have already stopped stocking and selling these wet wipes – and so other shops would follow this trend. Any fully biodegradable wet wipe options could still be sold but the vast majority of these products contain plastics which don’t break down, meaning they block up pipes over time. The government said it will work with the industry to create environmentally friendly alternatives to wet wipes.
Conservative environment minister Therese Coffey said a ban could come in as early as next year after consultation. Wet wipes flushed down toilets cause 93 per cent of sewer blockages and cost around £100m a year to sort out, Water UK, the body representing the water industry has said. About 90 per cent of these wipes contain plastics – but there are alternatives to using these which is why the government is calling for a ban.
The government is planning to ban the sale of plastic wet wipes from as early as next year. This is part of a wider government initiative called Plan for Water, which involves the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) working to improve England’s water quality. Under a ban, the government wants to see more investment from water companies, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement for those who pollute.
It also includes a consultation on a ban of plastic in wet wipes and restrictions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in firefighting foam, textiles, cleaning products, paints and varnishes. And Ms Coffey said on Saturday that water companies could face unlimited penalties for dumping sewage. Yet opposition and environmental groups have criticised the move, saying it’s weak and doesn’t go far enough.
Campaigners have shown mixed support, with many saying the government’s plan doesn’t go far enough to tackle water quality and supply problems. River Action UK, an environment charity, told the BBC the government must have been “asleep at the wheel” for years, allowing rivers to “fill up with untreated human effluent and toxic agricultural pollution”. CEO Charles Watson said: “How can Defra credibly announce ‘stronger regulation and tougher enforcement’ when there is not one single commitment today by government to put its money where its mouth is and properly re-fund statutory environmental protection agencies?”
Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay said: “After years of burying their heads, ministers have finally surfaced to tackle the scourge of sewage and pollution in our waterways and along our coasts. It’s clear the Conservatives can also smell a local election in the air and are only acting in response to public pressure. The actions are too little too late, and still leave the water industry in private hands able to profit from failure. The Green Party wants to see system change, with our water supply brought back into public ownership at the earliest practicable opportunity.”