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Time to stop the release of wet wipes into sewers

We take it so much for granted that we only notice it when it is no longer there, such as when our supply is shut off for maintenance works. It seems absence makes us measure - and appreciate – the luxury of accessible water.

But the European water sector has its daily challenges, one of them being sewers getting clogged regularly by plastics. Let’s dig in.

The Single Use Plastics Directive is good, but incomplete

We must reduce the release of plastics, especially single use plastics (SUP), into the water cycle. Plastics often end up in the environment and contribute to marine littering. The SUP Directive1 proposed by the European Commission is an opportunity to mitigate marine plastic pollution, and improve the general state of our environment. While this goal is laudable, effective measures are also needed to prevent another kind of insidious pollution, closer to the European consumer.

The SUP Directive fails to tackle the impact of some SUP on our waste water infrastructure. Some plastics can find their way through water pipes through user behaviour or inappropriate labelling by manufacturers. Wet wipes (also known as baby, hygienic or make-up remover wipes) are often used as an alternative or supplement to toilet paper. Consumers think therefore wipes biodegrade like toilet paper. Manufacturers perpetuate the myth that these can be disposed of via the toilet through sometimes misleading or overly discrete product labelling. Many people who use wet wipes are unaware that these cannot – and should not – be disposed of down the toilet.

What is the problem with wet wipes?

The impact of thousands of consumers flushing wet wipes is devastating. Wet wipes are a key cause of the pipe blockages and pump clogging that water operators have to deal with both in our pipe networks and in waste water treatment plants. In the United Kingdom, 75% of the weight of the identifiable items found clogging pipes comes from wipes alone. Wipes are designed to be resistant to water and usually contain plastic fibres. They cannot and should not be flushed regardless of what the label says.

The economic damage caused by improper wet wipe disposal is significant: for the United Kingdom alone, the repair costs are estimated at £100m (€113m) per year. Many Member States come to similar estimates. This money is spent on unblocking pipes rather than making the much-needed upgrades to our water infrastructure. The cost of this maintenance is passed onto consumers through increased water bills.

So what has gone wrong? Wet wipe manufacturers often brand their products as flushable, using fast degradation claims in their marketing. Waste water treatment operators contest certain results of ‘flushability’ tests based on firsthand experience. Some products labelled as ‘flushable’ do not decompose or disintegrate as claimed once in the sewer network. Instead, the remains can form a huge mass of plastic-containing fibres blocking waste water pipes and pumps.

Wet wipes that make their way to waste water treatment plants are usually removed in the screening phase, causing another problem for plant operators: tonnes of contaminated plastic fibre-containing waste. Who owns this waste and who should pay for its disposal?

Moreover, if wet wipes really were to decompose as claimed by manufacturers, they would release a substantial amount of microplastics into waste water, contaminating sewage sludge or worse, be emitted directly into the environment.

Producer responsibility must include the sewer network

Wet wipe use is due to increase. Unless we act today, we will have to face a much larger problem tomorrow. The SUP Directive offers the opportunity to introduce effective EU-wide measures. Experience shows that labelling wet wipes is ineffective. Awareness-raising campaigns conducted by water operators in a number of EU countries show some positive results, but cannot resolve the problem either. Real improvement is only possible if the extended producer responsibility includes the sewer network and the related economic and environmental damage. This would be a powerful tool triggering research in more sustainable products and would allow the proper implementation of the polluter pays principle. The European Parliament and the Council need to put forward much needed solutions now.

The European Parliament Environment Committee has just approved its report on the quality and affordability of drinking water. With the SUP Directive, the committee has the opportunity to support the affordability of water services and protect drinking water resources. The Parliament is in a positon to really make a difference to consumers’ pockets and to environmental protection overall.

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