‘Long overdue’ consultation on plastic wet wipe ban launches

DEFRA has launched a six-week consultation on proposals to ban the sale of wet wipes containing plastic across the UK, which campaigners have described as “long overdue”.

Thames Water sewer supervisor emerges from a manhole in Whitehall. Source - GettyImages, Adrian Dennis

The consultation seeks views on how a proposed ban on the sale of wet wipes containing plastic would impact wet wipe manufacturers, vendors, and consumers – in particular disabled people. 

Views are also sought on the wider impacts of keeping wet wipes containing plastic and wipes marketed as alternative or plastic-free in circulation. The consultation also aims to gather information on the composition of wet wipes, determine if any exemptions are needed, and when the ban should come into effect. 

Campaign group City to Sea welcomed the proposed ban but also described it as “long overdue”. 

A ban was most recently promised earlier this year in the government’s Plan for Water. However, it was first put forward by Theresa May’s government in 2018 and previous consultations and calls for evidence have already been carried out. In a 2021 government survey, 96% of respondents said that they supported a ban

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

City to Sea policy manager Steve Hynd said: “Although we welcome this ban, don’t believe the wipe. The ban could and should have been introduced years ago. 

“When you combine this with the clear and compelling environmental harm these products do, I am not sure what else the government is waiting for.”

As well as contributing to microplastic pollution, 75% of drain blockages are caused by people flushing plastic wet wipes down the toilet, according to Water UK. 

READ MORE: Fact check: Are intentionally added microplastics set to be banned in the UK?

David Henderson, Water UK chief executive, said: “We welcome the government’s plan to ban plastics from wet wipes. When flushed, these wipes cause fatbergs and other blockages that trigger overflow spills into rivers or flood homes and businesses. 

“As our Bin the Wipe campaign makes clear, these products should never be flushed. We can all do our bit by putting wet wipes in the bin, rather than flushing them.”

According to the Marine Conservation Society, wet wipes were found on 62% of UK beaches in 2022 with over 38,000 collected, of which 30,000 were in Scotland. 

MCS head of clean seas, Dr Laura Foster said: “A ban on plastic in wet wipes will help reduce the impacts of flushed wipes, with plastic affecting the growth, development and lifespan of sea life, and contribute to the wider issue of ocean plastic pollution. Ultimately, we want to see a shift away from single use to reusable wet wipes.  

Foster added that some retailers have already made the switch to plastic-free wet wipe alternatives after MCS campaigns.

Calum Duncan, MCS head of conservation in Scotland, said, “We’re delighted to see this UK-wide consultation for a much talked about, but delayed, ban on plastic in wet wipes.   

“While this is a huge step forward, we also need more support for reusable options to help us move to a circular economy and reduce the amount of single use items polluting our seas. 

“We hope to see further measures being taken by both governments and water companies across the UK to reduce sewage-related litter ending up on our beaches.”

Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “Wet wipes containing plastic are unnecessary and are polluting our environment. 

Coffey said the plan will build on commitments the UK has already made to tackle plastic pollution in our waterways, including “building on banning microbeads in personal care products to taking billions of plastic bags out of circulation”. 

Microbeads were banned in the UK in rinse-off personal care products from January 2018, and a charge on plastic bags was first introduced in 2015 – doubling to 10p in 2021.