U.K. Retailers Vow to Stop Selling Plastic-Based Wipes
A number of U.K.-based retailers are pledging to ban the sale of wipes containing plastics in an effort to curb non-biodegradable waste and solve sewage problems they feel are being caused by improper flushing, a move that wipes industry stakeholders fear could backfire. Instead, these associations feel wipes makers and retailers should focus on proper labeling and increasing consumer education to solve problems associated with wipes.

In April, Boots became the latest retailer to announce a plan to stop the sale of plastic-based wipes, joining the likes of Tesco and Aldi. These efforts could impact baby wipes made by international conglomerates like Procter & Gamble and Huggies.

“Our customers are more aware than ever before of their impact on the environment, and they are actively looking to brands and retailers to help them lead more sustainable lives,” says Steve Ager, chief customer and commercial officer of Boots. “We removed plastics from our own brand and No7 wet wipe ranges in 2021 and now we are calling on other brands and retailers across the U.K. to follow suit in eliminating all plastic-based wet wipes. We all have a responsibility to protect our planet. By joining forces to inspire more positive action, we can collectively make a big difference.”

One of the biggest sellers of wet wipes in the U.K., Boots reformulated its own-brand ranges of wipes to be plastic-free last year. Tesco, meanwhile, cut sales of baby wipes containing plastic in March, two years after eliminating plastic from its storebrand wipes.

“We have worked hard to remove plastic from our wipes as we know how long they take to break down,” says Tesco group quality directory Sarah Bradbury. “There is no need for wet wipes to contain plastic so from now on we will no longer stock them if they do.”

Some of the reformulated wipes, like Aldi’s Mamia baby wipes, which are now biodegradable, have been criticized by parents for an inferior performance.

Heidi Beatty, principal of Crown Abbey, a nonwovens and absorbent products industry consultant group based in the U.K. reports that formulators needs to weigh a number of factors including performance and cost when developing wipes.

“In some cases switching from plastic derived raw materials to biobased feedstock has resulted in a negative impact on performance,” she says. “In the U.K., parents have expressed anger over reformulated baby wipes sold by Aldi, claiming the quality of the biodegradable wipe has changed and they need to use more product to get the job done.”

Baby wipes, in particular, are challenged with extremely tight margins, meaning a formulation change may be cost prohibitive.

“It is a fine line for the product developer to walk, to ensure the consumer needs are met while trying to launch a more sustainable product,” Beatty adds. “In such a commoditized market, baby wipes in particular have had a bumpy road with at least one big brand already choosing to exit the category all together.”

While these moves have been lauded by wastewater agencies like Rider Drains in the U.K., wipes advocacy groups like EDANA, in Europe, and its North American counterpart, INDA, favor a focus on labeling, testing and consumer education. Studies by these group have found that only a small percentage of sewage problems can be attributed to flushable wipes. The two associations, along with their membership, have spent more than a decade working on developing flushability standards and labeling requirements for all sorts of wipes.

Gil Stevens, external relations and sustainability, of EDANA, says that EDANA does not support a ban on wet wipes containing plastic, and instead feel that focusing on the intended use of the product—rather than its composition—is more likely to eliminate problems related to disposal.

“The design and composition of wet wipes should be determined by their intended use,” he says. “A wet wipe that is disposed of properly can be made from any number of materials, including plastic, if discarded appropriately according to label instructions.”

In recent years, companies throughout the wipes industry supply chain have focused on creating a more sustainable product line both through raw material adjustments, manufacturing changes and packaging design, however the use of plastic-based raw materials continues to be strong in certain wipes segments, like baby care, due to the combination of efficacy and affordability the materials offer.

“Innovation and new approaches are the best way to continue to ensure consumers have the best products and experience whilst continuing to drive to circularity,” Beatty adds. “We clearly can’t have all wipes move to one source of fiber, as that will tip the balance again in a negative way – driving up prices and using valuable resources for instance – and we need to work together as an industry to both develop the right-fit products as well as help educate and explain our choices in a transparent way.

One example of a possible path forward is the action taken by the European Union with its Single Use Plastics Directive (SUP) (2019/904). The legislation imposes clear marking requirements on plastic-containing wet wipes, inspired by the existing voluntary industry code of practice. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a bipartisan effort is underway in Congress to establish federal requirements for the disposal of wipes to carry prominent “Do Not Flush” labeling on packaging of non-flushable wipes. This legislation has been applauded both by U.S.-based INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, and CASA, the California Association of Sanitation Agencies.

“CASA applauds Senator Merkley and Senator Collins for introducing the WIPPES Act. This bipartisan legislation addresses the flushing of non-flushable wipes that has plagued the clean water sector for decades and protects the billions of dollars ratepayers have invested to clean up our waterways and protect public health,” says CASA executive director Adam Link. “Lacking proper disposal instructions, consumers unwittingly end up flushing these single-use, synthetic wipes that can clog pipes, pumps and treatment equipment. Establishing common sense ‘Do Not Flush’ labeling practices addresses this problem at the source. CASA also appreciates the bill’s grants program to support education and outreach activities that expand ratepayer awareness of the “Do Not Flush” label and ensure these wipes do not make their way into our wastewater systems.”

Stakeholders also fear that consumers could confuse plastic free with flushable, which is not always correct, leading to increased instances of improper flushing.

“It is likely for consumers to associate ‘plastic free’ with ‘flushable’, which is not always correct. Confusion might lead to increase the occurrence of blockages in the sewer, which would be counterproductive,” Stevens adds.

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