This is how supermarkets and retailers compare on wet wipe pollution - should they be banned?

Wednesday, 10th February 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 10th February 2021, 9:44 am
Do you think wet wipes should be banned? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Many supermarkets have made efforts to be more eco-friendly in recent years by cutting down on plastic waste and improving the labelling and testing of products.

While plastic bags and packaging are one of the biggest contributors to pollution, wet wipes are particularly bad for the environment, with many washing up on the UK’s beaches each year as a result of being wrongly flushed.

The plastic content of many wet wipe products contributes not only to beach litter and fatbergs, but also to microplastic pollution in our seas.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

During last year’s Great British Beach Clean, volunteers from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the UK’s leading marine charity, found an average of 18 wet wipes per 100 metres of coastline, making them the third most common litter item on UK beaches in 2020.

However, some supermarkets and high street retailers have now started to cut plastic from non-flushable wet wipes in order to reduce litter and pollution across the UK.

How do supermarkets compare?

The MCS, which works to ensure UK seas are healthy, protected and pollution free, has released the results of its 2020 wet wipe survey to reveal how retailers are performing in terms of testing, labelling and removing plastic from their own brand products.

Wet wipes are tested against the conditions of the UK’s sewer system to ensure that they break down and don’t cause sewer blockages, fatbergs or wind up littered across beaches.

Those that can be flushed down toilets safely meet the Fine to Flush criteria, an official standard introduced by Water UK.

However, results of the MCS’s survey found that not all wet wipes sold across UK retailers meet this standard.

Findings revealed that Aldi is the only retailer to have certified its own brand flushable wipes against the Fine to Flush standard, with the product being stringently tested to ensure the wipes break down in the sewer system.

Boots, Morrison’s, Tesco and Waitrose have all committed to attaining Fine to Flush status by June 2021, while Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Superdrug and Wilko are yet to make a commitment to meet the charity’s summer deadline.

Meanwhile, health and beauty retailer Superdrug has stated it has no plans to test for Fine to Flush status at all.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the MSC said: “Many retailers were aware of the Fine to Flush standard months in advance of its introduction in 2019.

“Our research has shown that, unfortunately, retailers simply aren’t doing enough. Either they’re not taking urgent action or, in the case of Superdrug, they’re taking no action at all.

“Without firm commitments, legislation is going to be needed to make sure that Fine to Flush is mandatory.”

Superdrug has said that is it committed to offering sustainable health, beauty and care products for its customers, launching its own brand Biodegradable Cleansing Facial Wipes in January 2020, which do not contain any plastic materials and are flushable as defined by EDANA GD4 industry standard.

A spokesperson for the retailer said: “We maintain our view that GD4 has a history of over 15 years of rigorous testing and is more robust than Fine to Flush as it uses a greater number of tests to determine the impact of wipes in the sewer system once flushed, is more reproducible and reliable and is performed independently. Therefore, we have no plans to enter into further testing.

“Our position remains that we will continue to focus on educating customers to reduce and stop non-flushable products from being flushed as we believe this will have the greatest impact on the real issue.”

What about non-flushable wipes?

Some wipes, such as those used to remove makeup or for cleaning, have not been marketed as flushable but they may still be disposed of that way.

In the case of these products, correct labelling is crucial to ensure the wipes are not being flushed.

Encouragingly, all retailers surveyed by the charity clearly state ‘Do Not Flush’ on their own brand, non-flushable wipes.

The MCS hopes that retailers will extend this labelling to all of their own brand sanitary products, although currently only the Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose do this.

A Co-op spokesperson said: “Co-op has led the way for over 20 years with clear on-pack guidance to stop consumers flushing wipes. In addition to our ‘Bag and Bin, Do Not Flush’ message on all wipes, cotton buds and similar products, we are committed to moving to 100 per cent plastic free wipes.”

The charity also assessed retailer’s commitments to remove plastic from their non-flushable wet wipes as part of the survey.

Boots, Waitrose and Wilko were the only retailers found to have already removed plastic from their wet wipes, although others have committed to doing so by the end of this year.

The only retailers that have not yet committed to removing plastic from non-flushable wet wipes by the end of 2021 are Aldi, Asda, Co-op and Lidl.

A Lidl spokesperson said: “Whilst all of our own brand flushable wet wipes are certified to EU standards, we are actively exploring more plastic-free, biodegradable products with our suppliers with the aim of meeting ‘Fine to Flush’ standards by the end of 2021. For example, we recently trailed a wet wipe made from 100 per cent natural derivatives and no plastics, and aim to offer more plastic-free products in the future.

“It is equally important that consumers are aware of how to correctly dispose of their products. As such, all of our wet wipe products provide clear instructions to our customers whether they are flushable or not, and we have committed to rolling this out further to all feminine hygiene products this year.”

A spokesperson for Asda added: "We are always looking at ways to reduce plastic use and have already removed plastic from our non-flushable wipes. We are also working with our suppliers to understand the changes needed to meet the 'fine to flush' standard.”