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Wet Wipes: What's not to like? (quite a lot, actually)

Blog by Alyson & Hanna

Sustainable Merton Community Champions

We all love wet wipes. Why wouldn’t we? There are wet wipes for every occasion, every object and every room in the house. They are convenient, often enriched with insect repellents or balms to soothe our skin and even promise to make us look 10 years younger! They make our lives easier, ideal when on the go and we feel as though they are more hygienic.

As we have become more concerned about hygiene in and out of the home and keeping the Covid virus off surfaces, it is understandable that the use of wet wipes has increased dramatically. Both by individuals and organisations such as supermarkets who now have cleaning stations at the front of each shop. It is clear that their use has increased since the pandemic and the number that remain in landfill is astonishing.

So, what’s not to like? Well, quite a lot it would seem.

Our Community Champions’ Project Manager Rachael Edwards reports that wet wipes are one of the most common items in Merton that are picked up on litter picks. In fact, there are a staggering 11 billion wipes used each year in the UK.

Whilst from a personal perspective they are ideal, from an environmental perspective they are pretty much catastrophic. Let’s start by looking at what is in a wipe. They come in plastic packaging and the majority of wipes (except perhaps those that have been designed to be fully biodegradable) are 75% polyester, a plastic which does not fully biodegrade, or takes up to 100 years to do so.

What about flushable wipes? Don’t they solve the problem? Apparently not. These wipes often contain compounds that allow them to break down into smaller pieces after they have been flushed. It could even be argued that they are worse, as they result in microplastics being released into the environment. It would also seem that by giving people the option of selected wipes being flushed down the toilet, it results in many more wipes being flushed when they shouldn’t be. Some people have even been known to dispose of wet wipes with their food waste – this is a definite no-no!

Let’s return to the term ‘Biodegradable’, i.e., a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution. This is one to be wary of, as it is not a term that is regulated. As a result, many wipes that indicate they are biodegradable are in fact only likely to be partially biodegradable at best. It is best, therefore, to refer to the rule of 3 Ps. You should only flush the 3Ps down your loo –pee, poo and paper. Everything else should go in the bin – and only water should go down the plughole!

But, most worryingly of all, wet wipes are a major component of fatbergs. Fatbergs are huge masses of flushed non-biodegradable waste material such as wet wipes combined with congealed grease or cooking fat which sets the fatberg hard. It is reported that wet wipes typically make up more than 70% of the material causing sewer blockages.

The size of fatbergs is increasing as we all use more and more wet wipes. The largest fatberg in the UK was discovered in a sewer in Liverpool. It weighed 400 tonnes and was 250 metres long. These huge fatbergs can cause blockages in sewers, sewers can overflow, pollute the water supply, spread harmful bacteria and lead to raw sewage flowing up into homes.

Getting rid of the fatbergs has become a major headache for water companies worldwide. In the UK it costs about £100m every year to treat and remove fatbergs. The larger fatbergs can take many weeks to remove, as it is necessary to break them down into smaller pieces. The people doing this must wear specialist equipment and take precautions, as gas pockets can form which can ignite.

So, what are the alternatives?

Luckily, there are a lot of alternatives and they are cloth! You just use them as you would a disposable wet wipe and then pop them in the washing machine as per instruction. I wash mine at 60 degrees and if that doesn't remove all stains I hang them out to dry in the sunshine which always helps.

The most well-known brand for reusable baby wipes is Cheeky Wipes. They offer great starter kits that come with a small container to keep the wipes in.

If you want to support a local business, Zéro – the zero-waste shop in Centre Court Wimbledon offers lovely square cotton or bamboo makeup pads made locally by Wrapperware or organic cotton round pads by Greenpioneer (shop here).

Or have a look on Etsy where you can find the most gorgeous fabrics and patterns and you can be sure that you’re supporting a small business with your purchase.

There are lots of great brands out there but the cheapest (and probably most environmentally friendly) is to make your own! If you have some old towels lying around that you no longer need, you can just cut them up into squares of about 15cm x 15cm and you’re good to go (if you have the skills to hem them even better). If you prefer them thicker, you can sew one or more together.

But remember, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can start by swapping the disposable wipes at home, maybe in the bathroom and see how you get on. If it works for you, try to start using them in other areas of the household or when you’re out. It is a lot easier than you might think - all you need to do is not forget them and have a bit of water on hand.


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