Wet Wipes Are A Big Problem For The U.K.’s Rivers

While wet wipes have likely reduced the number of people that get sick with the cold and flu each year, they’re wreaking havoc on Britain’s riverbeds.

A London-based environmental organization recently conducted a river cleanup and recovered more than 5,000 wet wipes from the banks of the Thames River. That translates to an increase of 1,000 over the total wipes recovered from last year’s cleanup.

Representatives from the organization say that at low tide you can actually see mounds of the wet wipes forming on the banks. It can be hard to spot from a distance, as the wipes look as if they’re just part of the riverbed’s natural shape. Upon closer inspection, though, you can see that the “clumps” are actually made up of the wipes, twigs, and mud.

Wet wipes have become a multi-billion dollar industry. There is an annual conference dedicated to the product, and now there’s even an online museum dedicated to the moist towelette. The wipes come in many specific uses, from baby wipes and personal care to anti-malarial wipes, industrial wipes, and even pet wipes. The industry has a predicted growth rate of at least 6% every year. It’s currently a $3 billion international market, and it’s expected to reach $4 billion by 2021.

With that kind of growth, there’s a definite concern regarding the impact on the environment. The wipes themselves are constructed from materials like polyester, cotton, and polypropylene. None of those materials are biodegradable. People naturally think that it’s OK to flush wet wipes down the toilet, but that’s not the case.

The UK’s water and sewer companies conducted a study last year and discovered that 93% of the materials found to cause sewer blockages were wet wipes.

The London environmental organization Thames 21 is working to inform government entities about just how big the problem is. They’re hoping to meet with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see about changing the labels on wet wipe packaging and adding a blurb about not flushing the products down toilets.

The Thames isn’t the only location suffering from this issue and amending packaging labels seems like a small price to pay to increase the health of the UK’s River systems.