UK Government to ban wet wipes containing plastic

  • Wet wipes cause 94% of blockages in UK sewers
  • An average of 20 wet wipes have been found per 100 metres of UK beach
  • An 18-month transition period will allow businesses to prepare for the ban
Wet Wipe

An estimated 11 billion wet wipes are used in the UK every year

The UK government has announced new legislation to ban wet wipes containing plastic in an effort to improve the quality of waterways and cut pollution, the Environment Secretary confirmed this week. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it intends to bring forward the legislation for England ahead of Parliament’s summer recess, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales following in the autumn, as part of an aligned approach to bring the ban into force.

An 18-month transition period will now start to allow businesses to prepare, but the ban will not include the manufacture of these products, in line with other recent single-use plastic bans. However, the government is encouraging businesses to move to a position where all wet wipes are plastic free.

Wet wipes containing plastic will remain available where there is no viable alternative, such as for medical disinfectant purposes, but the government will review the need for these exemptions regularly.

The ban will be brought in under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and will remove the cap on civil penalties on companies releasing untreated sewage into waterways and restrict types of Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or ‘forever chemicals’ found in plastic waste.

It is estimated that the UK uses an estimated 11 billion wet wipes per year, with approximately 2.1-2.9 billion wrongly flushed down the toilet.

Wet wipes containing plastic break down into microplastics over time, with research showing this can be harmful to human health and disrupt ecosystems.

A 2015-2020 survey showed an average of 20 wet wipes were found per 100 metres of beach surveyed across the UK. 

Once in the water environment, wet wipes containing plastic can accumulate biological and chemical pollutants, increasing the risk of harm to animals and humans who encounter them.

This ban aims to reduce both plastic and microplastic pollution and reduce the volume of microplastics entering wastewater treatment sites when wrongly flushed.

Part of the government’s Plan for Water initiative, the legislation follows a 6-week consultation with the Scottish government, the Welsh government and the Northern Ireland executive from October to November last year.

According to the UK government, 95% of respondents agreed with the proposal to ban wet wipes.

Steve Barclay, environment secretary, said: “Wet wipes containing plastic are polluting waterways and causing microplastic to enter the environment.

“Defra will introduce legislation before the summer recess to crack down on the unnecessary source of pollution, following our successful single-use carrier bag charge and ban on microbeads in personal care products.

“I have been clear that a step change is needed to protect our waterways from pollution. The ban builds on a raft of actions already taken to protect our waterways and hold water companies accountable – including accelerating investment, putting water company fines back into the environment and quadrupling the number of inspections of water company sites.”

This ban is a world-first on this scale, but an increased number of regions have taken more responsibility over the years.

In 2023, Australia discouraged the use of wet wipes and encouraged adoption of sustainable alternatives. In 2015, New York City passed a law forbidding the labelling of wet wipes as ‘flushable’ to avoid improper disposal.

Disturbingly, a study by Environmental Science & Technology suggests the average person consumes up to 211,000 microplastic particles every year. The study further claimed that negative health implications included endocrine disruption, insulin resistance and decreased reproductive health.

Companies, such as Boots and Aldi, have already transitioned to plastic-free wet wipes and ceased manufacturing them. Luke Emery, plastics and packaging director at Aldi, said: “The removal of plastic from Aldi wet wipes two years ago has been positive for our customers and the environment.

“It has removed an estimated 7,000 tonnes of unnecessary plastic from the system and has been welcomed by Aldi shoppers. We support the introduction of this new legislation and the positive impact it will have for everyone.”

Written by:
Louise joined The Eco Experts as Editorial Assistant in April 2024. She is a talented artist who has a keen interest in solutions that lead to a more environmentally-friendly future.
Back to Top