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Wet Wipes: Disposal

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022


Asked by

We have launched a call for evidence exploring options to tackle the issues caused by wet wipes. We are seeking views on mandatory flushability standards, mandatory labelling to indicate how wipes should be disposed of, an extended producer responsibility scheme, and a ban on wet wipes containing plastic, with exemptions for medical purposes. Responses to the call for evidence will inform our next steps.

My Lords, I recognise that wet wipes are part of the consultation mentioned by the Minister, but given the enormous amount of damage that they do, both to the environment and in causing sewer blockages, and given too that there is cross-party support for a ban in both Houses of Parliament, will the Government bring forward measures very soon, either by secondary legislation under the Environment Act or by giving government time and support to the recent Bill presented in the House of Commons by Fleur Anderson MP?

The Government wish to reflect the cross-party support for action on this, and will be moving quickly, following this call for evidence and the analysis of it. We are, in spirit, behind the Bill that the noble Baroness talked about, but we think there are more complications that we want to iron out before we bring forward legislation. If she can be patient with the response to the call for evidence, I think we will all find ourselves on the same page.

My Lords, anyone who saw the BBC “Panorama” programme last April about river pollution will remember how much of the riverbed of the Thames was covered in a layer of plastic wet wipes and other domestic products. Have the Government made any assessment of the effect on the health of our rivers from this very unpleasant layer of domestic plastic waste that covers so much of our riverbeds?

Like every Member of this House, I was repulsed by the fatberg found under the streets of London a few months ago, which was largely created out of wet wipes. The Marine Conservation Society says that wet wipes were the third most common type of litter found on beaches in Great Britain in 2020 and that 93% of the material that causes sewer blockages comes from wet wipes, so there is an urgency in dealing with this issue. We really want to get rid of the plastic that exists within wet wipes and to make sure that parent groups’ fears are alleviated, but we also do not want to cause other environmental problems by replacing plastic with other materials that would then be damaging to the environment in how they were harvested. There are complications that we need to deal with, but I share the noble Duke’s concerns.

My Lords, the Minister has just said that this matter is urgent but he has also asked us to be patient. We know that, in addition to what the noble Duke has said about blockages in sewers piling up on our riverbanks and foreshores, it is costing water companies about £100 million a year to clean up these blockages and the pollution, and those costs are being passed on to the consumer. It is not a question of being patient; this is a very particular issue. We know that there are sustainable non-plastic alternatives so I cannot understand why it is taking the Government quite so long to process this when there are alternatives and the issue needs urgent action now. Can he reassure us that there is urgency in the actions that he is taking?

I hope I can. This issue is an absolute priority for us and fits in very well with a string of measures that the Government have taken in recent years to tackle plastics and the pollution effects that they have caused. In some cases the plastics in wet wipes are polyester, in some cases they are viscous—that is, they bind the fabric together—and sometimes they are spun into it.

Concerns have been raised by health organisations that wish to continue to use wet wipes because they see them as fundamental to hygiene in hospitals and other places. I hope that this year we will find a solution that reflects the results of our call for evidence, that we will move forward and that everyone supporting the Bill in the other place and here, and everyone who shares my concerns about this pollution problem, will find a solution that we can all be happy with.

My Lords, with 11 billion wet wipes being used every year in this country and 90% of them containing plastic, the public are understandably in need of better and clearer information. Indeed, the flushable standards are voluntary. Can the Minister reassure the House that the flushable standards and the lack of use of plastic will be an urgent priority? Can he give us any timeline for when that might happen?

Currently, Water UK defines plastic as

“synthetic organic material (e.g. petro chemical derived plastic fibres)”.

Water UK has said that that Fine to Flush, the standard that it is applying, contains the flexibility to change within the evolving definition of plastics and that the standard is awarded only for a two-year to three-year period to enable it to be up to date. The Government are working with the industry to find solutions, but ultimately it is for the Government to regulate and we will do so.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that “biodegradable” has become a bit of a weasel word as time has gone on and that it is now a very powerful bit of marketing language that does not always properly describe what you have to look at the small print to find out, which is that things that are biodegradable sometimes also contain plastic? Can he assure the House that the language used in marketing products will not be misleading in that way?

There are many products that we were all told years ago were biodegradable but have now discovered are not, or which may be biodegradable to the eye but break down into microplastics. That is the problem with wet wipes: very often the material may disappear but the plastic is the problem and continues to cause problems in our environment. The noble Baroness is absolutely right.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the principle that the polluter will pay is actually passed down to the producers of these items and they will ultimately be picking up the bill? Would the Minister like to speculate on just how that would improve the development of acceptable replacements?

It is a very similar philosophical point to that raised by disposable nappies. These are created by manufacturers but used by all of us who have children. We need to find a way of giving a clear direction to the industry that one particular type of product will no longer be allowed. Then the industry will innovate and find affordable solutions that the consumer can use. That is the perfect sweet spot to hit when you are trying to regulate against these measures. The precautionary principle is also vital. When talking about biodegradable waste, if there is uncertainty in what we are doing, sometimes we just have to take the precautionary approach.

My Lords, plastics and wet wipes have an impact on our fishing industry and marine environment—on both the catching and the processing sectors. In view of the impact on our hospitality industry and wider society, can the Minister provide us with a timetable that will indicate the implementation of the regulations and an acceptance of the Bill going through the other place that will diminish and eradicate the impact of plastics on our land and marine environments?

We will be working with the proposer of this Bill, Fleur Anderson, to make sure that she understands what we are trying to do alongside her Bill. There are no state secrets here. We will be sharing all the data we get as a result of this call for evidence. We can inform your Lordships about when we are bringing forward measures within the provisions of the Environment Act or other forms of legislation as quickly as possible, recognising the urgency that everybody feels.