‘Yawning complacency’: DEFRA slammed for slow pace on banning wet wipes

DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow was not able to give a timeline on when a ban on plastic wet wipes might come into effect, telling peers on a House of Lords committee only that the measure will come into place “as soon as possible”.

Pow fielded questions from the Industry and Regulators Committee on Tuesday, as part of a follow up to the Lord’s March 2023 report ‘The affluent and the effluent: cleaning up the failures of water and sewage regulation’. 

The report noted that 90% of fatbergs, which cause expensive blockages in the sewer system, are made up of wet wipes. The committee concluded that “Wet wipes pose a serious risk to the proper operation of the sewage system by contributing to ‘fatbergs’ – build ups of fat that cause blockages and thus storm overflow use” – and recommended that the sale of all non-biodegradable wipes is banned. 

Lord Agnew of Oulton quizzed Pow on why, with all the information available, the government is not taking immediate action and putting in place a ban. 

He said DEFRA “could deal with [the problem] literally within a month if you had the will and the focus to do it”. 

Agnew also accused the current environment secretary of “yawning complacency in this sector”. 

Pow responded: “I certainly have the will. I have never been a woman that uses wet wipes. 

“In fact, I was the backbencher that started the campaign to ban plastics in wet wipes, which we’ve done. So we are already now working on how we can bring forward this consultation rapidly to do exactly as you’re saying.”

Pow referenced the announcement that a consultation would be launched on banning wet wipes containing plastics in the department’s Plan for Water, published in April. 

However, at the time campaigners highlighted that the government had already carried out a consultation In 2021 over banning wet wipes that contained plastics, finally publishing these results this year which showed that 96% supported the proposed ban. 

The ban on wet wipes had also first been proposed under Theresa May’s government back in 2018, when May pledged to eradicate all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042.

READ MORE: 5 things you need to know about DEFRA’s plan to improve water quality

Pow said, “under my hat I would like to bring forward our ban on these things”, but when questioned over what the timeline would be for getting a ban in place, Pow said: “All I can say is as soon as possible.” 

Around 90% of wet wipes currently contain plastic, which prevents them from breaking down when flushed, according to the Flood Hub – an organisation supported by the Environment Agency.

Steve Hynd, policy manager at City to Sea, an environmental charity that has been campaigning for years to get plastic removed from wet wipes, said: “It’s disappointing that years after this consultation, and months after similar promises, we're still only hearing now, yet another announcement, for yet another a proposed consultation. 

“The plastic crisis demands urgent action and instead we're seeing promises, delays, and half measures.”

He continued: “Plastic wet wipes cost hundreds of millions in sewage blockages each year and cause a catastrophic environmental problem, changing the shape of rivers and harming marine wildlife. 

“While government drags its feet, supermarkets could and should take these from their shelves now.”

Hynd also warned that plastic in wet wipes is just the tip of the iceberg – or fatberg, it might be more apt to say – as floss and sanitary products are also still sometimes flushed causing blockages. 

He continued: “Our research for example shows that 28% of people using tampons mainly flush used products down the toilet while 9% of those using period pads flush their products as the main form of disposal. 

“While banning plastic-filled wet wipes is a good positive step forward, we need a legally binding and ambitious plan to reduce all plastics, incentivise and mainstream reusable products, and more work on educating the public about not treating their toilets as bins.”