The water sector’s war on wet wipes has reached new heights, as the government wades into the environmental debate. Utility Week reports.

Wet wipes have long been the scourge of the water sector. Every year, companies are estimated to spend £100 million clearing sewer blockages, of which more than 90 per cent are caused by wet wipes.

Now the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), headed up by the vociferous Michael Gove, has weighed in on the debate.

The department says its focus for wet wipes is to work with manufacturers and water companies to develop a product that does not contain plastic and can be safely flushed. “We are also continuing to work with industry to make sure labelling on the packaging of these products is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly.”

While eliminating single-use plastic waste is one of the government’s top priorities in its 25-year Environment Plan, it has not announced plans to ban wet wipes, despite several national media reports suggesting this.

The Defra announcement has been welcomed by water companies, which are doing a lot to tackle the problem of wet wipes in sewers. Many have launched campaigns to warn customers of the problems caused by flushing wet wipes. For example, Thames Water’s “Bin It – Don’t Block it” campaign, and Northumbrian Water’s “Love Your Drain” campaign.

Wessex Water even led a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards about the way products such as wet wipes are marketed as flushable. Wessex’s director of assets and compliance Matt Wheeldon says: “Let’s hope this move by the government will not only help to remove this source of pollution but also end the daily misery and expense to our customers who have had their homes flooded with sewage as a result of wet wipe blockages.”

Yorkshire Water says it wants to see wet wipe companies develop a “truly degradable, plastic-free, flushable wet wipe”, which would not cause blockages or damage to the environment. “Currently, no wet wipe is flushable as they contain plastics which do not break down and cause build up,” says a spokesperson. “This can lead to internal flooding and serious problems to the environment… We are called out to more than 30,000 sewer blockages every year costing £2.4 million, with 40 per cent of incidents caused by wipes.”

Meanwhile, Severn Trent predicts that it has to clear around 50,000 blockages a year, with around 70 per cent of them down to misuse of wipes or fats, oils and greases. “Any measure that will help manufacturers and users consider a better way forward is to be welcomed,” says a spokesperson.

However, Anglian Water argues that merely removing the plastics from these products, although good for the environment, will not solve the sewer blockages issue. Programme manager Rachel Dyson, who chairs Water UK’s sewer misuse network, argues that “whether a wipe has plastic in it and whether it is flushable are different things”. “Removing plastic from wipes would be a great move for the environment, but to prevent blockages of pumps and sewers, there is still a need for any products marketed as flushable to meet agreed flushability standards.”

Southern Water says it is pleased the government is calling for the industry to develop plastic-free wipes. “The water industry is always innovating to try and meet the challenges posed by unflushable items entering the sewer network and we work hard to educate our customers about what and what not to flush,” says a spokesperson. The company has called for wet wipes manufacturers to “join the fight” against non-flushable wipes.

The Defra announcement is encouraging and is sure to raise awareness of the issue, but it will not solve the issue of sewer blockages on its own. In response to the announcement, Ofwat insisted water companies have a huge role to play in getting the message out to customers, and in “driving change to ensure the long-term resilience of our water supply system”.

Water UK says it is the duty of everyone in the sector to “take action to combat the problem”. Director of corporate affairs Rae Stewart, adds: “Water companies can help improve education about what should and shouldn’t be flushed, manufacturers can make labelling clearer and create products which break down in water, and individuals can bin the wipes rather than flush them.”

Water company campaigns

Company

Campaign

Anglian Water Keep it Clear
Northumbrian Water Love your Drain
Severn Trent Water Bag it and Bin it
Southern Water Bag it and Bin it
South West Water Love Your Loo
Thames Water Bin it – don’t block it
United Utilities What Not To Flush
Wessex Water Be Smart Love Your Loo
Welsh Water Stop the Block
Yorkshire Water Stop it, don’t block it