Just a quick warning – what you’re about to read isn’t pleasant! Words like blockages, fat, sewage and poo are all coming up!
Most people associate flooding with extreme downpours, swelling rivers and bursting floodplains - but what if I told you that wet wipes could be the cause of a household flood? Surely those convenient, tiny white squares couldn’t be responsible for sewage filling your rooms and ruining your furniture – or could they?
The drains that take waste water from our homes to the sewers can be as small as a tea cup and it only needs a handful of flushed wipes to combine with fat from your sink to block the drain and let sewage back-up into your house. Yuk!
Sewer blockages account for 80% of sewer flooding incidents in the UK and more than 3,000 properties are flooded each year as a result. UK water companies spend around £80million removing over 366,000 blockages in sewers annually, up to 80% of which are caused by products which should never have been flushed down the toilet in the first place – like wet wipes.
Because no-one wants their house to be full of sewage, the network of pipes that move sewage from your home to the treatment works have a series of overflows to relieve pressure on the system when it gets blocked or over-filled with rainwater. Although this doesn’t stop all houses from flooding, without it many more would. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But all of that sewage has to go somewhere and to save our houses it overflows into rivers, estuaries and the sea. Without proper treatment, sewage is full of bacteria and viruses and can pollute bathing waters, meaning people could come away with more than they bargained for like infections and stomach bugs.
Although overflows are usually screened they can’t stop all of the solids entering the environment and last year beach clean volunteers removed 3,955 wet wipes from our beaches in a single weekend – that’s an average of 47 wipes for every km of our coastline. Since they typically contain plastic they’re also adding to the ever growing problem of microplastics at sea and making their way into our food chain – fish fingers with a side of microplastics anyone?
Flooding, polluted bathing waters, litter on beaches and microplastics in the sea - and all potentially because you flushed a tiny white square after removing your make-up or wiping your face! So the big questions is, why are people flushing them down the loo?
The market for wet wipes has exploded and any trip to the supermarket will confirm that you can buy them in all shapes and sizes and use them for anything from cleaning babies bums, kitchen floors to toilet seats – their uses are never ending and so are the differences in their labelling. Some shout ‘flushable’, ‘dispersible’ or ‘bio-degradable’ on the front, whilst others have tiny ‘do not flush’ messages on the back. The public is unsurprisingly confused why such similar products can have such different labelling and advice about disposal. As a result many wipes not designed to be flushed are increasingly being flushed down the toilet. To confuse things further, even those wipes currently labelled as flushable don’t meet the water industry standard and can still create the blockages that are causing all of the problems.
It’s because of the often unknown consequences of flushing wipes and confusing messages to consumers that we’re demanding retailers include a clear ‘DON’T FLUSH’ message on all their wet wipe packaging and remind us all that only paper, pee and poo belong down the loo. Sign the petition for clearer labelling by retailers.
Our houses may be full of wet wipes of all shapes and sizes and varying uses (as are our bags, cars and pockets!) – but we must make sure they don’t end up in our toilets, sewers and beaches! Buy a bin and put it by your loo.
Water Quality Programme Manager, Marine Conservation Society
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