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Plastics (Wet Wipes)

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of wet wipes containing plastic; and for connected purposes.

I thank the Bill’s sponsors, many of whom are here today, and the many MPs from all parties who have shown their support for it. I also thank the Marine Conservation Society, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Thames21, the Green Alliance, Water UK and my water company, Thames Water, for their support for the Bill and for the ongoing campaign.

This is a Bill that everyone agrees with, from constituents to conservation organisations, water companies, MPs from all parties and the industry. The UK Cleaning Products Industry Association believes that plastic-free options are the right way for the industry to go. We were promised that by the Government in 2018, when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that it would target plastic-containing wet wipes in its bid to eliminate all avoidable single-use plastic within 25 years. A DEFRA spokesperson at the time said,

“As part of our 25-year environment plan, we have pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products like wet wipes.”

But where is that ban? I hope that my Bill gives the Department the nudge.

I welcome the Government’s amendment to the Environment Bill to introduce additional charges on single-use plastics, but that just will not wash—pardon the pun. Hygienic wipes are a single-use plastic, but subjecting them to additional charges will only hit the pockets of families, instead of making the profit-making polluters pay. I welcome the Secretary of State’s promise this morning of a consultation on whether to restrict the materials used in wet wipes, but I hope that the consultation does not kick the issue into the long grass. As Her Majesty the Queen said about COP26, we need actions, not words, and this is an example of such action.

To be clear, I am not talking about banning wet wipes; I am talking about banning the use of plastic in wet wipes. I have spoken to so many MPs who have picked up wet wipes from their rivers and coastlines. They have seen the scale of the problem at first hand and want more action. In this week of COP26, we are looking at the big picture of climate change and biodiversity, yet that picture is made up of many individual, bold actions. If our global house is on fire, we will need many buckets of water to put it out, and here is one of them. I will outline the scale of the problem; what the problem is with plastic; whether a ban is possible; and what else needs to be done.

First, on the scale, as a mother of four children, I have used a lot of wet wipes, and I completely understand the pressures that parents are under and how useful wet wipes are. I know that parents also want to do the right thing for the environment. Wet wipes have made life easier for millions of people and families. The market is worth $3.7 billion globally and growing rapidly, especially because of covid. In 2019, an astonishing 11 billion wet wipes were used in the UK—163 for every single person— and that was before the pandemic. We have seen a huge surge in the use of wet wipes and hygiene products since then. Between 2005 and 2020, the great British beach clean has seen an increase in wet wipes found per 100 metre stretch of beach from 1.7 to 18. The scale is increasing enormously.

About 90% of wet wipe products contain some form of plastic, which breaks down into microplastics that never dissolve or biodegrade. When those plastics enter our local marine environment and water systems in such large volumes, the damage is devastating. Globally, 100 million marine animals—from birds to fish, and other marine organisms—die each year from plastic waste alone. They eat the plastic, which sits in their stomach indefinitely, not being digested, and slowly and agonisingly it starves and suffocates them to death as they cannot process food. Plastic wet wipes are designed to absorb toxins, bacteria and chemicals, so they also act as a deadly poison when consumed by unwitting marine wildlife.

It is not just animals but humans who are affected. Globally, the World Wide Fund for Nature believes that a human could ingest about 5 grams of plastic every week—the equivalent of a credit card. Mr Speaker, we might literally be eating a credit card’s worth of plastic every week and wet wipes are a huge cause of that.

That is not all. Wet wipes are behind 93% of blockages in UK sewers and are even changing the shape of our rivers as they pile up on banks and beds. In 2018, Thames21 volunteers retrieved more than 5,000 wet wipes from about 100 metres of the Thames bed during an operation on the river. Every year, water companies spend £100 million dealing with 300,000 sewer blockages. That money is added to consumer bills—our bills; it costs us as well as the environment. The Thames Water area alone—my area—has on average 85,000 blockages a year due to fat and wet wipes congealing. [Interruption.] I am sorry about all these facts, but we need to know them.

Yesterday, I visited Becton sewage treatment works to see the 30 tonnes of unflushable material that it removes every day, most of which is wet wipes. It is not a sight that I will forget in a hurry. I have also been out at low tide on the Thames to see thousands of wet wipes in a wet wipe island washed up on the Thames foreshore. They are found widely on our beaches, too. That is the scale of the problem—it is large. But can wet wipes be banned? Is it feasible? Can they be made without plastic? They can. Many companies produce plastic-free, bio- degradable wet wipes in the UK and I have spoken to several. Many non-plastic alternatives exist, for example bamboo fibre wet wipes and plant-based wet wipes such as cellulose or viscose. There are alternatives.

I give credit to Holland & Barrett and The Body Shop for being the first two retailers to commit to stop selling plastic wet wipes and replace them on their shelves with environmentally friendly alternatives. Sainsburys has now made its own brand of wet wipes plastic free, using material from renewable sources. It is perfectly possible to do and, since more of the production of the plastic-free wet wipes happens here in the UK, it is also a source of UK green jobs.

The next question is whether, if wet wipes are made without plastic, they will still be economical. Will they not pass on a price hike to the consumer? That is not what we want. Yet again, companies such as Pura prove that it can be done, and with a greater scale of production, driven by a ban, even more could be done. A ban would create a boost for innovation in the sector and a level playing field between companies, ensuring that costs are not passed down to the consumer because some companies are still using plastic and others are not.

What else is needed? Far too many people believe it is okay to flush wet wipes. I am here to say that it is not. It is never okay to flush wet wipes. The “fine to flush” standard has helped to move the industry towards more decomposable wet wipes, but the labelling is voluntary, a bit confusing and unclear. I challenge any hon. Member in the House today to go to their supermarket shelves, look at the wet wipes and try to work out from the labelling what is the right thing and what is not, what contains plastic and what does not.

The Government need to apply extended producer responsibility to producers of all other types of single-use wet wipes. The polluter should pay for the damage. We need legislation, because the scale of the problem is so big, so damaging and increasing so fast. Ask any marine conservationist, any water operator, any engineer clearing a fatberg or any volunteer clearing up sludge from our rivers—they will tell us we simply cannot afford to wait for the industry to catch up.

I hope my Bill will lead to action from the Government and that they will come good on that 2018 promise to ban plastic in wet wipes. Otherwise, those promises are just hot air. My Bill sets out the need for a clear plan for reduction on the way to a ban. It will be a win for consumers and for the environment. I urge the Secretary of State to take action that can stop the mass killing of wildlife from microplastics, the destruction of our rivers and the chaos in our sewer system. I urge him to listen to civil society, the water companies, the consumers, our constituents and his own MPs, and to ban plastic in wet wipes once and for all.

Question put and agreed to.


That Fleur Anderson, Philip Dunne, Caroline Lucas, Ms Diane Abbott, Tim Farron, Barry Gardiner, Jim Shannon, Patrick Grady, Helen Hayes, James Gray, Dr Lisa Cameron and Ben Lake present the Bill.

Fleur Anderson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 November, and to be printed (Bill 182).