Wilko is giving its customers a pat on the back for making “smart choices”. By that, it means buying its own-label wipes. Since they went plastic-free a year ago, they have saved 1,500 tonnes of the stuff, according to Wilko. Hence its new in-store campaign, which is set to highlight to customers “the impact they’ve helped achieve”.

Wilko could do with a pat on the back itself. It sells no fewer than 22 varieties of own-label wipes and, in a claimed high street first, the retailer has ditched plastic in all of them – even the ones used for car care.

So, is it a sign of great strides in tackling the menace of wipe pollution? It depends on the criteria by which you measure it. If it’s Fine to Flush accreditation, then no, since Wilko’s wipes do not have it (although Fine to Flush stresses that it welcomes all moves away from plastic, including Wilko’s). 

It highlights an important debate. Established at the start of 2019, the Fine to Flush certification scheme assesses whether wipes are both free of plastic and, as the name suggests, suitable for disposing of in a toilet without fear of causing a sewer blockage.

The latter is important because there are 300,000 sewer blockages in the UK each year, the scheme says. They cost about £100m to clean up and can cause sewage floods, which in turn can result in pollution, including plastic, reaching the sea.

Some 90% of the blockages are caused by wipes binding with other substances such as grease and creating ‘fatbergs’, according to Fine to Flush. And it should know, as it’s the certification scheme of the UK Water Industry, which represents the companies responsible for the sewers. Any wipe that hasn’t passed Fine to Flush’s tests, assessing whether it will disintegrate or snag in drains, among other things, could be one of those causing a blockage, whether or not the wipe itself contains plastic.

Yet Aldi is so far the only retailer to make all its own-label wipes Fine to Flush certified, while Waitrose has the certification on some of its own-label wipes but not all.

In February, the Marine Conservation Society published a retailer survey of who has done what to tackle wipes pollution, and who has Fine to Flush accreditation. Tesco, Morrisons and Boots, along with Waitrose, were working towards it for all own-label wipes by June this year. Asda, Sainsbury’s and Lidl had not made a similar commitment, and Superdrug had gone so far as saying it had no plans to, according to the findings.

Among brands, Andrex has had Fine to Flush accreditation for its Washlets range of wipes since February last year.

“Many retailers were aware of the Fine to Flush standard months in advance of its introduction in 2019,” said MCS head of clean seas Laura Foster of the survey findings. “Our research has shown that, unfortunately, retailers simply aren’t doing enough. Either they’re not taking urgent action or, in the case of Superdrug, they’re taking no action at all. Without firm commitments, legislation is going to be needed to make sure that Fine to Flush is mandatory.”

Fine to Flush itself is also lobbying the government to make its certification scheme the mandated standard for flushable wipes. But this is likely to be a point of contention for retailers – and not just because of the strict standards. The Water Research Council, which conducts the tests for Fine to Flush, charges in the range of £7,250 to £8,000 plus VAT for them. And that’s over and above the expense of actually engineering the product to pass.

Wilko argues that by not seeking accreditation it has been able to keep the prices of the wipes the same.

“We’re proud to be first retailer to go completely plastic-free for all our Wilko wipes,” says a spokeswoman. “Back in March 2020 we switched to renewable plant fibres created from sustainable sources across all our 22 products. We also carry out the most rigorous testing including those for degradation.

“We respect the great awareness-raising work being done by the Water UK-supported Fine to Flush private scheme that others have signed up to but decided to not invest right now in the endorsement. It was important to us that Wilko customers not be expected to pay more for going a little bit greener and we’re delighted that our new, plastic-free Wilko brand wipes continue to deliver the same high performance at the same, great price.”

It’s an important point, given that keeping sustainability affordable is crucial for value retailers. Otherwise, as Iceland’s MD Richard Walker likes to point out, shoppers will look elsewhere, rendering any move on sustainability irrelevant.

By making all its wipes plastic-free, Wilko has also gone above and beyond in one sense, since Fine to Flush’s accreditation and lobbying only applies to ‘personal care’ wipes, deemed the most likely to end up flushed down the loo.

So Wilko’s in-store marketing campaign has perhaps struck the right tone in praising customers for making sustainable choices. Just as long as they follow the ‘do not flush’ instructions on the pack.