Images above: Thames21 volunteers picking up wet wipes from the Thames foreshore
Fleur Anderson MP for Putney is introducing her bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of wet wipes containing plastic in parliament today (Tuesday 2 November). The bill has support from fellow MPs and organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society, Thames21, Thames Water, the Green Alliance and the World Wildlife Fund.
The flushing of non-biodegradable wet wipes results in literally piles of them clogging the river. Because they don’t disintegrate they create clumps, meshed with twigs and silt. Not only are water companies wasting millions of pounds trying to remove them in treatment plants, but microplastics end up in the food chain as a result.
Chris Coode, Deputy Chief Executive of Thames21, told The Chiswick Calendar they tend to collect on the inside of river bends where the water flows more slowly. Volunteers from the charity have excavated an area the size of two tennis courts on the Richmond side of the river by Hammersmith Bridge and picked up 23,000 wet wipes in just two hours. The height of the riverbed there had been raised by a metre and a half by the accumulation of wet wipes.
There are wet wipes which are designed for flushing down toilets, which disintegrate, which have ‘Fine to flush’ printed on the packaging, but 90% of the 11 billion wet wipes used in the UK every year contain some form of plastic. Toilet paper and disposable wipes disintegrate quickly but kitchen roll and wet wipes containing plastic are designed to hold their structure and stay strong.
The plastic in wet wipes breaks down into microplastics, which can be ingested by marine and riverine animals, and are entering into our food chain and water supply. The environmental damage caused by plastic waste is causing an ecological disaster with 100 million marine animals dying each year from plastic waste alone.
A survey of fish at the mouth of the Thames has found that 75% flounders, which are bottom feeders, had plastic in their systems.
Wet wipes are also behind 93% of blockages in UK sewers. The Thames Water area alone has on average 85,000 blockages a year due to agglomerations of fat and wet wipes.
Fleur Anderson MP
Launching her bill, Fleur Anderson MP said:
“As a mother of four children, I completely understand the pressures that parents are under and the difficulties that can bring when trying to cut down on plastic and make the right choices for the environment.
“I know that parents want to do the right things and all I am saying is that we can make it easier on them and on everyone who relies on the use of wet wipes every day.
“There are so many different types of wet wipes for sale but the labelling is really confusing. It really isn’t easy to determine which wet wipes contain plastic and which are ‘fine to flush’. There will be thousands of people out there right now using wet wipes every day with no idea that they are using a single-use plastic and with no idea of the harm that it is doing to our water systems and our marine environments”.
Alternatives to wet wipes containing plastic include plant-based products made from bamboo fibre or cotton and washable re-usable cloths. Holland and Barratt recently became the first shop on the high street to introduce a complete ban on the sale of all wet wipe products and plan to replace them with environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives.
“Flushing the odd wet wipe may not seem like a big deal” said Fleur, ” but I don’t think people realise the scale of the problem.
“It isn’t just causing environmental damage and polluting our marine environments, it is also costing water companies around £100 million per year to clear 300,000 blockages. That is money that then ends up on our water bills each month.
“It has been years since DEFRA announced it would target plastic-containing wet wipes in its bid to eliminate all avoidable single use plastic within 25 years. Well, it’s COP26 this week and the environment bill is going through Parliament. This is the perfect opportunity to make good on that promise. Let’s ban plastic in wet wipes once and for all.”
Image above: Thames21 volunteers picking up wet wipes from the Thames foreshore
Thames21, which works to improve rivers and canals for people and wildlife, is looking for volunteers in the Chiswick / Hammersmith area. They carry out regular clear-ups and surveys to inform the public about the scale of the problem.
More generally, they work with all ages creating new habitats for wildlife, flora and fauna, controlling non-native invasive species, removing litter, introducing reedbeds to tackle pollutants, creating sustainable drainage solutions to improve water quality and reduce flood risk, campaigning against waterway pollution and promoting sustainable behaviour.
Contact them through their website.
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