All blocked up: UK proposes ban on plastic wet wipes to tackle water pollution

The UK is considering a ban on wet wipes to tackle water pollution.
The UK is considering a ban on wet wipes to tackle water pollution. Copyright nito100 via iStock / Getty Images Plus
Copyright nito100 via iStock / Getty Images Plus
By Rosie Frost
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More than 90 per cent of the material in sewer blockages across the UK is made up of plastic wipes, according to a recent report.


The UK is looking to ban plastic wet wipes that clog up the country’s sewers.

Under a plan to tackle water pollution, the government is launching a public consultation on whether to get rid of plastic wipes. Some retailers like supermarket Tesco and health and beauty company Boots have already stopped selling them in favour of biodegradable alternatives.

Although these alternatives are available, most products still contain plastic which doesn’t break down, sticks together and can create something known as a fatberg. These rock-like masses of waste matter form in the sewer systems from non-biodegradable solids, oil, grease and fat.

A recent report from Water UK, the body representing the water industry, looked at 53 sewer blockages across the country. It found that wet wipes made up 93 per cent of the material causing major blockages and costing around £100 million (€114 million) a year to clean up.

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
British engineers study a fatberg in central London's sewers in 2017.AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Environment Minister Therese Coffey told the BBC that the proposal was to “ban plastic from wet wipes”. She added that the consultation was a “legal requirement” to make sure that they can go ahead with the ban.

The ban should come into force next year following the consultation.

Is banning plastic wet wipes a new idea?

Some have criticised the government for proposing measures that were already tabled in 2018.

“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,” says Liberal Democrat party environmental spokesperson Tim Farron.

The consultation on whether to ban wet wipes is part of the UK government’s Plan for Water which was published on Monday (3 April).

It is intended to improve water quality in the country and also includes measures like restrictions on some kinds of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - also known as ‘forever chemicals’ - in textiles, cleaning products and other items.

The government also announced earlier this week that water companies could face unlimited fines for releasing untreated sewage into waterways without good reason.

Are plastic wet wipes banned in the EU?

The EU has had a ban on certain single-use plastic items since 2021. It includes some of the items most commonly found on beaches like straws, plastic bottles and polystyrene takeaway containers. 

It doesn’t include plastic wet wipes but there are some measures in place to mitigate the pollution they cause. Packaging must have a warning label which tells consumers there is plastic in the product and that they shouldn’t flush them down the toilet.

Through the Extended Producer Responsibility policy, producers of wet wipes will also have to help cover the costs of cleaning up the pollution they cause.

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