Turtles washing up on beaches, strangled by six-pack rings from leading beer brands. Putrid garbage islands floating in crystalline seas. A deluge of bottles blighting a stunning tropical beach. These are the images most commonly evoked by the war on plastic

Labour MP Fleur Anderson’s calls to ban any wet wipes containing plastic in the UK this week could draw further attention to a less highly publicised – but equally crucial – battleground. According to her campaign, the UK uses 11 billion wet wipes a year, 90% of which contain plastics.

The ramifications of this are, quite frankly, vile. Not only do wet wipes containing plastic disfigure beaches and pollute rivers, they also contribute to the formation of fetid ‘fatbergs’. The city of Birmingham discovered this first-hand in April this year, when a 300-tonne mass of unflushable nappies, wet wipes, oil and grease formed under its streets.

Feeling queasy yet? You can bet consumers are. And will continue to do so as the issue becomes more prominent – as it almost certainly will, given the current climate. That Anderson chose the week of COP26 to launch her bill is no coincidence. 

Which means suppliers of wet wipes that still use plastic should read the writing on the wall. Whether Anderson’s bill gets through Parliament or not, it’s clear this is the direction in which the industry needs to move. And fast.

Consumers certainly have a role to play. They could start by not flushing the damned things in the first place. More work from government and suppliers to better communicate this and drive home the message would be welcome. 

Current labelling is not satisfactory, argues Anderson. “There are so many different types of wet wipes for sale but the labelling is really confusing,” she says. “It really isn’t easy to determine which wet wipes contain plastic and which are ‘fine to flush’.”

But ultimately, plastic needs to be eliminated from wet wipes altogether. And the technology is already there – as evidenced by the number of retailers and suppliers that have gone plastic-free.

On the retailer side, Wilko removed plastic from its entire range of own-label wipes in 2020 –  a move it claims has saved 1,500 tonnes of plastic in just one year. Waitrose, too, achieved ‘fine to flush’ certification for its plastic-free, biodegradable wipes in 2019. 

The big four have made serious progress, too: at the time of writing all of them stocked a wide range of biodegradable wipes. Quite a few non-flushable wipes were still available, though.

On the supplier side, Huggies has committed to ditching the plastic in its wipes range in the UK by 2024. Dove launched a range of plant-based, biodegradable wipes last year. And that’s without mentioning Cheeky Panda, the bamboo-based paper products brand, which is steadily winning over more and more shoppers and is en route to a potentially lucrative IPO

With or without a law to mandate these more environmentally friendly options, the message is clear: get on board or be left behind. 

Not only is moving away from plastic a win from a PR perspective, but it is without a doubt the right thing to do. And, as COP26 dominates the headlines, the public mood won’t for long tolerate businesses that contribute to plastic pollution when an alternative is readily available.