Guess who, or what, The Guardian’s villain of the year is. Islamic State? The Fifa officials who have grown fat from careers (allegedly) spent trousering millions in backhanders? Kim Jong-un, the murderous supreme leader of North Korea? Actually, the scourge of the planet in 2015 is far more mundane but no less nefarious (according to The Guardian at least): wet wipes.
The (ironic, I hope) headline has piqued my middle class angst. My household swears by them. Without wet wipes, my six-month-old son would still be welded to his high chair with the mush we fed him for breakfast, his facial features barely discernible beneath a mask of Ella’s Kitchen parsnip puree and snot; his three-year-old sister’s grubby hands would be a potent bio-weapon Kim Jong-un would kill to get his hands on.
Now we’re told this domestic godsend is in fact the work of the devil. Reports after a Cardiff University study this week claim wet wipes are responsible for spreading the killer superbug C. difficile in hospitals, binding with discarded fat to form giant ‘fatbergs’ and clogging our sewers, littering our coastlines (35 per kilometre) and choking turtles that mistake them for jellyfish.
My daughter would be heartbroken if she knew her hygiene was at the expense turtles (she fell in love with a plastic specimen she found in the pool on holiday last year). And so would I. The low tech alternative to wet wipes – a damp flannel – is unhygienic and inconvenient, but the mounting press reports seem to suggest we should be scrubbing wipes off our weekly shop. Except we’re not going to, because the reports have ignored some rather important points.
The Cardiff University report, concluded that “wet wipes are generally good products… [but] a single wipe should not be used on multiple surfaces”. The more valid (and alarming) story to come out of this report is not that wipes can spread germs from one surface to another (well, duh), but that healthcare staff are stupid enough to think that a quick once over with a wet wipe is a suitable hygiene procedure for a hospital.
Likewise, the fouling of our oceans with wet wipes is down to user error: people flushing them down the toilet and forgetting about them. I know throwing them away results in them ending up in landfill, but their contribution to the national rubbish tip must be tiny, and this has to be preferable to choking turtles and spoiling our coastlines.
It’s time wet wipe brands like Huggies started doing more to educate consumers about how to dispose of their products. After all, if reports like the one we’ve seen this week continue, their business will depend on it.