In September last year, a 250-metre long fatberg weighing 130 tonnes was found blocking a sewer in Whitechapel, London. The solid mass of congealed fat, wet wipes and nappies is one of the largest to date and took over three weeks to remove.1
One of the key contributors to creating these fatbergs is the inappropriate marketing and labelling of so-called flushable products.
The Big Issue
Wipes. Or more accurately ‘flushable’ wipes. In recent months we have seen a Channel 4 documentary highlighting the growing issue with fatbergs and more recently the government outlining plans for eliminating avoidable single-use plastic waste by 2042, identifying wet wipes as an area of concern.
Did you know the latest figures indicate that wet wipes are now behind 93% of blockages of UK sewers?! The increasing popularity of polyester and polypropylene-based wipes (essentially, plastic) for removing make-up, applying insect repellent, deodorant or sunscreen has been identified as a primary cause.2
Why do companies use these plastic materials? Essentially, because they’re cheap! More recently however, this issue has been highlighted due to the impact it’s having on the environment. So, next time you’re picking up a pack of wipes from the pound shop, you may want to check what they’re made from and what it is you’re actually buying.
This lack of consumer education is only the tip of the fatberg (sorry, we mean iceberg). One major high-street retailer (who will of course remain nameless) currently stocks a so-called ‘flushable wipe’, made from the exact same plastic material as traditional baby wipes.
“We see a lot of wipes that are classified as ‘flushable by size’ with the material itself not actually being suitable to be disposed of down the drain. Unfortunately, a lot of people’s attitudes is that if the wipe is gone after they flush, then it’s someone else’s problem.” - Chris Socratous, Senior Product Manager
The latest fatberg story came on the back of The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) raising the issue of flushable wipes with Trading Standards, calling for urgent action to be taken. A survey of UK beaches by the MCS in 2016 found nearly 50 wipes per kilometre of coastline, a rise of 400% over the last decade.3
The nationwide cost of unblocking the sewers maintained by the water and sewerage companies is £88 million a year.3
“Many products on the market are not subjected to any specific flushability or dispersibility testing, with a lot of misleading claims being made. There’s currently a lack of legislation to prevent this happening” - Chris Socratous, Senior Product Manager.
So, what really makes a wipe flushable?
Flushable wipes can’t have plastic in them. Plastic is strong and won’t break down in the sewer system like toilet roll (or our pulp products) for example. Flushable wipes need to be cellulose-based. Cellulose is a natural fibre derived from plant sources, so is super-environmentally friendly.
The wipe itself also needs to break down when agitated in water, with seven stringent tests set out by the European Disposables and Nonwovens Association, EDANA. This is a group of very clever folks based in Brussels; who essentially set the gold standard when it comes to wipes.
All of our flushable products pass these tests with flying colours. In fact, we have data to show that our wipes are significantly more dispersible than alternative brands on the market.4
Is it really that simple?
The honest answer is ‘no’. What needs to be achieved isn’t easy. Essentially you need to develop a wipe material that you can wet, wrap, pack and leave on a shelf for two years (standard shelf-life for wet wipes) without it falling apart, yet you want it to then disintegrate as soon as it’s flushed. We work closely with our global network of industry experts to develop and source materials that use the latest technologies to deliver high-performance (yet cost-effective) solutions.
What else are Vernacare doing?
Education – We’re continuing to educate our customers about correct disposal of our wipes range.
Dedication – We’re committed to all of our new wipes developments using biodegradable cellulose-based materials.
Perspiration – We’re working hard with industry experts to develop new environmentally-friendly bio-plastic alternatives.
If you’d like to learn more about anything you’ve read, get in touch and don’t forget to follow our journey on Twitter and LinkedIn. We’ve got some exciting new products in the pipeline that we’re looking forward to sharing with you soon.
- BBC - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-41238272.
- BBC - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/44034025
- ITV - http://www.itv.com/news/2016-10-26/flushable-wet-wipes-wreaking-havoc-on-beachesand-sewers.
- Synergy Health Dispersibility Comparison Report (2015).