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  • Call to change wet wipes branding

    Parents, environmental groups and water companies have gone to war against the makers of so called “flushable” wet wipes, which are clogging up the nation’s toilets, drains and sewers.

    Matt Wetwipes mountain

    A damning report has been presented to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that calls for a ban on the word "flushable" on the wipes, which do not break down like conventional toilet paper after going down the U-bend.

    The complaint - which comes after the government confirmed plans to ban microbeads in cosmetic goods - is being led by Wessex Water and backed by City to Sea, Surfers Against Sewage, Marine Conservation Society and Litter Free Coast and Sea.

    We are called to resolve more than 13,000 blockages every year on the public sewer system in its region alone. In addition, there are thousands more blockages on customers' own drains each year.

    By far the biggest offenders are wet wipes, which are often branded as flushable but were responsible for more than two thirds of blockages in the west country region last year.

    Dealing with wipes has become a full-time job for water companies, and this week we released video footage of the grim blockages one of our staff encountered in the space of a few hours. 

    We have already written to supermarkets and manufacturers, urging them to market the products more responsibly, and we regularly urge customers to "love your loo" by only flushing the three Ps - paper, poo and pee.

    Matt Wheeldon, director of assets and compliance for Wessex Water, said: "We frequently hear from customers who have flushed wipes which have then caused a blockage.

    "As a result they have had their garden flooded with sewage and, in worst case scenarios, their homes flooded.

    "These wipes are marketed as flushable but often we find they simply don't break down and cause blockages."

    Environmental charities Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society - plus Litter Free Coast and Sea and City2Sea - have also signed the letter to the ASA, which calls for an end to "misleading" branding and packaging. 

    Wet wipes do not disintegrate in the same way as ordinary toilet paper after flushing. They can consequently block pipes or end up at the sewage treatment plant, where they have to be fished out.

    An increasing number of wet wipes branded "flushable" are being stocked on supermarket shelves, including baby wipes, cleaning wipes and personal hygiene wipes.

    One leading brand recently launched a TV advertising and Facebook campaign, urging people to switch from using toilet paper to their personal hygiene products.

    "Some manufacturers claim their products meet 'flushability protocols', yet the reality is that they have made up these protocols themselves - not the sewerage companies who have the horrible job of unblocking the sewers," said Mr Wheeldon.

    "The unequivocal evidence is that wet wipes simply don't break down quickly enough, despite claims that they do.

    "Spend just a few hours with our sewerage crews, who work every day helping distressed customers who have blockages in their homes, and you will see for yourself the problems they cause."

    Members of the popular online parenting forum Mumsnet have been sharing their own horror stories, with user Rhinestone Cowgirl among those describing the damage that wet wipes can cause.

    She said: "I live at the end of a terrace of three houses. We had raw sewage backing up in our back garden because one of our neighbours at the other end of the terrace had been using cleaning wipes and flushing them."

    Fellow poster OptimisticSix said: "They may well be flushable but it's a terrible idea to flush them. I work in customer service that deals with things like this and most toilet blockages reported seem to be a result of flushing these, or baby wipes."  

    Dr Laura Foster, MCS head of pollution, added:"Wet wipes cause thousands of blockages every year. To find out that retailers are selling wet wipes labelled as flushable (including those which they also describe as moist toilet tissue or dispersible) but yet contribute to this massive problem of blockages - causing costs both directly through blocked drains under property but also through increased water bills - is unacceptable.

    "We have been working with retailers to get them to change their wipes, and while we have seen changes with commitments to remove microplastics, we also need retailers to either remove their wipes or reformulate them so they pass the water industry standard. In the meantime the public should only flush pee, poo and paper down the toilet."

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