From wet wipes to clogged pipes

The huge environmental and financial cost of convenience.

They are convenient, cheap and easy to use. From babies’ bottoms to toilet seats, wet wipes help keep us clean, fresh and hygienic. They are also blocking our sewers, polluting our seas and changing the shape of our coastline.

Since the very first wet wipe – the Wet Nap - was launched  in 1960 to help clean up the sticky hands of diners in ribs and chicken restaurants, the market for single-use wipes has evolved and grown to immense proportions. Unfortunately, so have the fatbergs and blockages they help to create.

Baby wipes, cosmetic wipes, make-up removing wipes, sunscreen wipes, insect-repelling wipes, toilet cleaning wipes and more are among an estimated 11 billion disposable sheets used in the UK alone each year. The global industry is estimated to be worth more than £16.5billion – so there’s a lot of money in wipes. That may be why, despite growing clamour for these convenient products to either be made more environmentally-friendly or to be shunned as a single-use plastic, the industry has been slow to change.

Environmental Impact of Wet Wipes in Sewage

The environmental impact and the costs to utility companies of this reluctance to adapt are huge. Wet wipes are behind up to 80% of blockages in UK sewers, including those headline-grabbing fatbergs. They clog filters and machinery, accumulate on the banks of rivers and around the coastline and refuse to shift until they are collected and carted to landfill by the skipload.

United Utilities alone is reported to collect around 12,000 tonnes of wipes and other rubbish a year from its pipes.

Estimates for the cost of dealing with wet-wipe related problems vary, but some sources put the figure at upwards of £100m a year in the UK.

For Selwood, it’s a problem often seen both in the UK and by users of its pumps around the world.

Solids Handling Pumps are up to the challenge

John Lovell, Managing Director, Selwood Pump Solutions, the leading pumping solutions provider in the UK, says: “Over the past 10-15 years we have seen a huge increase in demand for our solids handling ‘S’ range. The wet wipe problem has had a direct influence on the design of our products – the S range has a Vortex impeller which our engineers designed to be clog-free, in part because of the widespread clogging problems we have seen caused by these wipes.”

Lane Miller, Manager of Canadian Pump Solutions, which provides pumping solutions to water industry customers throughout Western Canada, sees the extent of the issue regularly - for example when recently contacted by a company performing as sewer bypass operation in Edmonton.

“Their clogging issues were so bad that they were having to shut down their primary pump twice a day just to remove the debris that was accumulating in the pump’s intake,” he recalls.

“Because we are used to providing and maintaining Selwood pumps, we were confident in being able to provide them with a solution. They swapped out the pumps they were using with our Selwood S200 pumps, and the bypass is still ongoing today without one single clog.”

Wet Wipe Clog Prevention

Although Selwood’s teams are proud to have a product that can deal with clogs so effectively, they would rather the problem didn’t exist in the first place.

Obviously, prevention is far better than cure,” says Lawrence Bradbury, Director of Engineering, “The environmental impact is something that has come into focus, particularly as wet wipes become included in the general war against single-use plastics. But it’s not just about the environment – when you think about the huge costs of dealing with the problem, that money has to come from somewhere, and that’s a factor in every household and business’s water bill.

“We accept that it’s hard, or even impossible, to turn back – wipes are so convenient that it’s unlikely we could live without them in the modern age. But if every single wipe sold was flushable and biodegradable, we would take a huge step forward in tackling this problem.”

Achieving this relies on the industry overcoming a fundamental problem – there is not universal agreement on what ‘flushable’ means.

Fine to Flush Standard

In January 2019 a Fine to Flush standard was introduced by Water UK, which represents water companies. These wipes must pass strict tests which prove they break down quickly in the sewer system and do not contain plastic fibres.

In 2018 the BBC reported that all wet wipes branded ‘flushable’ by manufacturers had failed this standard.

The problem comes because many companies favour the industry’s own guidelines, established by EDANA (European Disposables and Non-Wovens Association), a group which represents most of the manufacturers of non-woven wipes across Europe. The industry decrees that any product that meets this standard can be labelled ‘flushable’ – but this often falls well short of the benchmark set by ‘Fine to Flush’ mark.

This discrepancy has led to criticism from water industry figures, including Matt Wheeldon, a director at Wessex Water, who called for any product which does not reach “Fine to Flush” standards to be clearly labelled Do Not Flush. This has been resisted by the industry so far.

Slowly, and partly driven by consumer pressure and growing concern about single-use plastics, truly flushable wipes have come onto the market.

Waitrose became first to the Fine to Flush mark in August 2019, when its own-brand moist toilet tissue refills achieved the status. The organic brand Natracare followed – possibly the early beginnings of a long-overdue change.

Lawrence Bradbury of Selwood said: “There will always be a need for solids-handling pumps in the water industry – it’s not just wet wipes that cause clogging, but a wide variety of solids including rags and sediment. However, it’s clear that a move by the industry towards Fine to Flush standards would work wonders when it comes to reducing blockages, downtime and environmental impact. We’ll probably never see a wipe-free future, but it would be a benefit to all of us if Fine to Flush products were widely available - and if we all think twice about what we flush down the loo.”

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