May 30, 2018

Wiping out wet wipes

By Marian Godwin

Single use plastic has been all over the news recently. The local government, shops, community groups and television programs such as Blue Planet are making an effort to raise awareness about the damage that this waste has on our environment.

Newcastle City Council has released a 50-page document called No Time to Waste. One of the key ideas from the report includes a voluntary ban on single use plastics in the city (this including pubs, clubs and restaurants). A full copy of the report is available on the Wise on Waste website at www.wiseonwaste.co.uk. The Government have also announced their proposal to ban plastic straws and cotton buds.

At home we were discussing single use plastics and how we could reduce our usage. When a friend arranged a beach clean, I signed up to volunteer thinking that this was a good way to reinforce my own commitment to this cause. I had also seen a distressing video online of a turtle with the straw being surgically remove from its nose.

Even though the beach clean was organised by volunteers, it was well supported by North Tyneside Council. They provided waste bags with holders, long-handled litter pickers as well as a council truck to collect the equipment and remove the waste at the end of the clean. We were asked to separate the waste into general waste, plastic bottles and rope. The plastic bottles were collected by a local charity; they’re able to raise funds by being paid for what they collect (there is money to be made from recycling!). The rope was used by a local resident who made a rug from it.

The day started well, with a mix of local residents, business owners, friends and even passers-by who saw what we were doing and wanted to get involved. I had walked down a stretch of the beach without picking up much and I thought that it was remarkably clean, but then I looked up to see a fellow volunteer heading back to the collection point with a car wheel under his arm! We found a bicycle, single shoes, flip flops, rope and fishing lines. I was expecting to find lots of plastic straws and plastic stems from cotton buds, as this is what they had found in the recent beach cleans. I was surprised to find that most of my haul was wet wipes. I use these almost daily and I am aware that they should not be flushed, but I’ve never thought of how they get disposed of. I found a Greenpeace report from 2016 https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/when-wet-wipes-turn-nasty-20160720/ that says that in the last decade, there has been a 400% increase in the average levels of wet wipes on British beaches. Even those marked as “flushable” don’t always meet water industry standards. These can block drains and pipes risking raw sewerage raised into waterways and the sea. Water companies are paying up to £80 – £90 million a year to clear these blockages which we as consumers end up paying through higher bills. But even if you’re not concerned with the finances, consider that most wet wipes contain plastic and once in the sea, it breaks down to some extent into microplastics, which are eaten by fish and end up on our dinner plates.

A quick read online shows many recipes and tutorials on how to make your own wet wipes. Many demonstrate using paper towels (which are more biodegradable than wet wipes) but my favourite are ones that use cotton cloths or facecloths, and for the ultimate in reducing waste, can be made from cut up t-shirts and old towels. These can be piled up and thrown in with your laundry and reused multiple times.

While to focus on single use plastics is worthwhile and much needed, lets expand our horizons and look to further reduce our use of all plastics.

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