The UK water industry has taken a major step forward in its “fight against fatbergs”, by publishing an official standard to help consumers identify which wet wipes can be flushed safely.

The new “fine to flush” symbol will inform consumers which products do not contain plastic and will break down in the sewer system.

Manufacturers of wipes will be able to feature the official symbol on their packaging if the product passes strict scientific tests, which will be carried out by scientific and sustainability consultants WRc.

Water companies have been grappling with the unfortunate effects of non-flushable wet wipes for decades. However, fatbergs – mainly caused by a build-up of wet wipes, fats, oils and grease into a solid mass – have been increasing in frequency in recent years.

These include a 250-metre long fatberg in Whitechapel in London in 2017 which weighed as much as nineteen elephants, and a 64-metre fatberg which was discovered blocking a sewer in Sidmouth, Devon.

Although there has been an increase in products being labelled “do not flush”, there are many wipes on the market labelled “flushable” which do not break down quickly when they enter the sewer system, and which would not pass the stringent tests which meet the standard to receive the “fine to flush” symbol. The labelling of these products can cause confusion among consumers, increasing the problem of sewer blockages.

There are approximately 300,000 sewer blockages annually, costing the country £100 million. Thousands of properties suffer sewer flooding caused by these blockages every year in the UK, creating misery for homeowners and businesses and leading to high clean-up bills and increased insurance costs. Sewer flooding also has a major impact on the environment.

In 2017 the biggest ever in-depth investigation of sewer blockages in the UK proved that wipes being flushed down toilets caused serious problems in the sewerage system.

The project found that non-flushable wet wipes could make up around 93 per cent of the material causing some sewer blockages. These wipes – which included a high proportion of baby wipes – are not designed to be flushed.

In May last year, the government was forced to weigh in on the debate. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it would 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.”

Commenting on the new “fine to flush” standard Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts, said: “This is an important step in the battle against blockages. We’ve all seen the impact of fatbergs recently, and we want to see fewer of them.

“Improving the environment is at the core of what the water industry does, and the new ‘fine to flush’ standard that we’ve created will make it easier for consumers to buy an environmentally-friendly product instead of one which clogs up drains and sewers.”

The technical name for “fine to flush” is Water Industry Specification (WIS) 4-02-06, and the full details of the specification are in the guidance section on Water UK’s website.

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