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When it comes to plastic free wipes the UK can do a lot better

Written by Fran

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Posted on August 13 2019

Wet wipes are something that has been booming in popularity in recent years. In fact, the numbers have climbed to 11 billion wet wipes used by the UK alone each year. They can be used for a wide range of reasons, from makeup removers to a quick way of cleaning hands while on the go, maybe when on public transport of after lunch in the park.

The most popular type, however, is definitely baby wipes. Fragrances, pure, organic, natural…the marketing has done wonders to convince us all that there is nothing better and softer for a child’s delicate skin than one of these pre-wetted tissues that just seem like the best thing a parent could wish for.

If you have children yourself or know anyone who has one, you will definitely know what I am talking about. I myself when I had my daughter never even questioned it. All my mum-friends used disposable wipes, my mum used them with me when I was growing up, what could possibly be the issue?

Well, for once, the fact that these disposable tissues are actually creating a massive problem when it comes to plumbing. But most importantly, they pose a serious environmental hazard to marine life and have even managed to seep into our food chain.

1. Wet wipes and plumbing

93% of all sewage problems faced in the UK are recorded to be due to the tossing of these wet wipes down the drain. What makes this type of tissue particularly problematic when tossed down our sewage pipes is that it combine with grease that is also poured down the drain, and form what is colloquially known as fatbergs. These can clog pipes and cause backups of sewage into people’s homes.

You may think that flushing a single wipe down your drain won’t cause any harm surely, but what you need to remember is that millions of people do it. And the scale of it is becoming a seriously alarming environmental problem.
Wet wipes do not break down the way toilet paper does when it is flushed down the toilet.

This is because most wet wipes are made of polyester which is not biodegradable and as a result, they can easily not only clog pipes and sewers but also act as a way for grease and other deposits to collect, sometimes even leading to homes being flooded with sewage.

Only this year a gargantuan 64-meter long fatberg was found in a sewer in the very popular resort of Sidmouth, Devon. This monstrous conglomerate of wet wipes, combined with oil and fats, had hardened into a block longer than six double-decker buses combined and it took 8 weeks of work to break down and remove it. Luckily it was taken away before it got into seawaters, but more often than not this also happens, spoiling our beaches and sea with yet more waste.

2. Would you wipe your baby with a plastic bag?

plastic bag used to wipe baby
Another concern we have to worry about is if these wipes dry out and start to break apart over time. 
The fact is that wipes are not really made of soft and natural fabric like advertisement would like us to believe. Quite the contrary, as they are basically made 90% out of plastic! Yes, nearly completely made out of plastic! Shocking right?

 But it gets even worse than this. As a plastic product, they take a very long time to break down but when they do, they don’t biodegrade like other natural materials. What happens is that they just downsize into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. Sometimes these bits get to such a small size that they are not even visible.

They break off of water bottles and other plastic waste and often get into the ocean, where they are eaten by fish and birds such as seagulls and albatrosses. This process can lead to damning consequences as it can bioaccumulate, which happens when chemicals build-up inside of living organisms.

A small fish eat microplastics, a bigger fish eat microplastics, a tuna eat microplastic. We buy and eat tuna. We end up with microplastics inside our bodies. Some studies have already confirmed the presence of microplastics in fish currently sold in supermarkets in developed countries.

And this does not even get into other aspects of plastic pollution, such as increased CO2 levels in the air, and the fact that this is just plain wasteful.

microplastics in the sea

We have got so used to the commodity of using things once and then throw them away immediately after that we have lost the ability to see how unsustainable this is. We only have one planet, why would we want to dump something we used one to get makeup off our face and maybe endanger the life of a turtle or pollute one of our beaches with it? 


3. What we can do to turn the plastic wipe tide

bidet eco friendly solution
If you have travelled in Southern Europe, you must have paid a visit to a bathroom and met a bidet. Well, as much as we may find it weird or impractical, it is definitely a much more environmentally friendly option to both toilet papers and wipes.
Let alone the fact that it is a lot more hygienic! However, for those of you who are not ready yet to embrace continental sanitary habits, there are other options.

First things first. Let’s just stop buying reusable wipes. They are terrible on so many levels, we should just stop adding them to our shopping carts. So what can we substitute them with? Well, the answer depends on what you would need wet wipes in the first place.

If you are one of those buyers who mainly use them to carry out household chores, such as dusting, wiping surfaces and even for cleaning kitchen and bathroom sinks, why not use a regular cloth? You could use some reusable kitchen towel that can be washed and reused again and again, or even simpler, just cut some squares out of an old sheet or towel, and there you have it, your own eco cleaning wipes!

 If you are regularly using them to freshen up your face or to remove make up, why not substitute them with reusable cotton flannel wipes or bamboo make up pads? These can be washed and used over and over again, making them a great eco-friendly alternative to their single-use commercial cousins. 

Reusable Make Up pads

When it comes to babies, we all want what’s best for our little ones. We have been so convinced by sweet commercials of mothers softly wiping their newborn’s delicate bums with softening and refreshing aloe vera wet wipes, or organic pure ones, why would we even question this is not the best thing we can do for our child and his/her wellbeing? 

Well, when you think that 90% of these wipes are made out of plastic, it doesn’t take much imagination to swap the idealized image of a soft fabric cloth to a more realistic one of…a plastic bag! Yes, that’s definitely a much more accurate comparison, and it really speaks volume about the power of marketing and advertising on our own perceptions.

So what can new parents use instead, that is not only better for the environment but also probably a lot healthier for their little ones?

The options again are various:

  • Reusable wipes: there are so many on the markets, from ones made of flannel to organic cotton, these are great eco-friendly substitutes to polluting disposable ones. We love these ones by Marley’s Monsters as they are incredibly versatile and can be used for many purposes and uses.
  • Old piece of organic cloth and water: why not reuse and repurpose an old organic cotton t-shirt? That’s the best definition of zero-waste!
  • Natural sponge and water: lastly, one of our favourite ways is a natural and 100% biodegradable konjac sponge, once soaked in water it becomes incredibly soft and silky, there’s nothing better to use on a baby’s smooth skin!

4. Conclusions.

We have been convinced by media and advertising that wet wipes are such an essential thing in our daily life that in recent years the UK has been using an astonishing 11 billion disposable wipes each year. These numbers are incredibly frightening both from an infrastructure point of view, as they can create great damage to our plumbing system, but more importantly, from an environmental perspective.

Wipes are essentially single-use plastic products, therefore are among one of the worst offenders when it comes to plastic pollution and waste. They cannot be recycled and if broken down in microplastics, represents a true danger to marine life and our national beaches.

There are small changes that we can make to make this world a far better place. One of those things is to stop using plastic-based wet wipes. With the issues that they cause to the environment and the lives of people, it is not worth it in the long run to use them. Instead, try plastic-free alternatives or reusable ones. Our country, our planet and most importantly, our children’s future will all be thanking you for it.

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