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New official wet wipe standard to bolster fatberg fight

The fight against fatbergs has received a boost with the publication of a new official standard identifying which wet wipes can be flushed down toilets safely.

Manufacturers of wipes will be able to feature an official water industry ‘Fine to Flush’ symbol on their packaging if they pass strict scientific tests.

This symbol will let consumers know that the products do not contain plastic and will break down in the sewer system instead of clogging up sewers and contributing to fatbergs which cause blockages and sewage overflows.

Fatbergs – mainly caused by a build-up of wet wipes, fats, oils and grease into a solid mass – have been increasing in frequency in recent years. These include a 250-metre long fatberg in Whitechapel in London in 2017 and a 64-metre fatberg that was discovered blocking a sewer this week in Sidmouth, Devon.

In 2017 the biggest ever in-depth investigation of sewer blockages in the UK proved that wipes being flushed down toilets caused serious problems in the sewerage system. The project found that non-flushable wet wipes could make up around 93 per cent of the material causing some sewer blockages. These wipes – which included a high proportion of baby wipes – are not designed to be flushed.

Commenting on the new ‘Fine to Flush’ standard, Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts said: "This is an important step in the battle against blockages. We’ve all seen the impact of fatbergs recently, and we want to see fewer of them.

"Improving the environment is at the core of what the water industry does, and the new ‘Fine to Flush’ standard that we’ve created will make it easier for consumers to buy an environmentally friendly product instead of one which clogs up drains and sewers."

Anglian Water, alongside Water UK and other water companies, is launching a new flushability standard for all wet wipes in a bid to combat the blockages which currently cost the East of England £15 million a year.

From today, manufacturers of wipes will be able to feature an official water industry ‘Fine to Flush’ symbol on their packaging if their wipes pass strict scientific tests. This symbol will let consumers know that the products don’t contain plastic and will break down in the sewer system instead of clogging up sewers and contributing to blockages, fatbergs and sewage overflows.

Sewer blockages and fatbergs – mainly caused by a build-up of wet wipes, fats, oils and grease into a solid mass – have been increasing in frequency in recent years. Anglian Water estimates around 800 tonnes of wipes and sanitary items are being flushed every week in the East of England region.

A study in 2017 found that non-flushable wet wipes could make up around 93% of the material causing some sewer blockages. These wipes – which included a high proportion of baby wipes and plastics – are not designed to be flushed.

Although there has been an increase in products being labelled ‘Do Not Flush’, there are many wipes on the market labelled ‘Flushable’ which do not break down quickly when they enter the sewer system, and which would not pass the stringent tests which meet the standard to receive the ‘Fine to Flush’ symbol. The labelling of these products can cause confusion amongst consumers, increasing the problem of sewer blockages.

Rachel Dyson, Anglian Water’s Keep It Clear programme manager, said: “We’re really pleased that the water industry as a whole is launching this new flushability standard today.

“Wipes cause real problems in the sewer network and have a devastating impact on customers. Wipes are by far the worst culprit but cotton buds, tampons and fats also cause problems in the sewers.

"They result in around 80 per cent of the 40,000 blockages across the East of England each year. Most of these blockages are entirely preventable, but instead lead to devastating sewage spills, can harm the environment and cost more than £15million each year to clear. Ultimately this cost is added onto customers’ water bills and would be better spent elsewhere.”

Manufacturers can have their wipes tested by WRc, the Swindon-based independent technical experts who developed the specifications for flushability standards in conjunction with Water UK. If they pass the tests, the wipes manufacturers will receive the ‘Fine to Flush’ symbol from WRc.

Although there has been an increase in products being labelled ‘Do Not Flush’, there are many wipes on the market labelled ‘Flushable’ that do not break down quickly when they enter the sewer system, and which would not pass the stringent tests required to receive the ‘Fine to Flush’ symbol. The labelling of these products can cause confusion among consumers, increasing the problem of sewer blockages.

There are approximately 300,000 sewer blockages annually, costing the country £100 million. Thousands of properties suffer sewer flooding caused by these blockages every year in the UK, creating misery for homeowners and businesses and leading to high clean-up bills and increased insurance costs. Sewer flooding also has a major impact on the environment.

The technical name for ‘Fine to Flush’ is Water Industry Specification 4-02-06, and the full details of the specification can be found on the Water UK website. Manufacturers can contact WRc to find out more about the process for having their wipes tested and receiving the official ‘Fine to Flush’ symbol.

Meanwhile, UKDN Waterflow, part of the Lanes Group, has undertaken a survey of the UK’s attitudes towards drains and flushing habits.

It found that at least one in four people in the UK pour cooking oil down the drain and almost half of people pour sauces, whilst one in five allow their drains to fill with hair and almost 15 per cent of women flush at least one of the following: tampons, applicators and wrappers.

Michelle Ringland, head of marketing at UKDN Waterflow, said: “Companies introducing the fine-to-flush labels to their product is a significant step in the right direction.

"Non-flushable wipes are responsible for 93 per cent of blockages and contribute significantly to the increasing numbers of fatbergs forming across the UK. It’s crucial for manufacturers to take responsibility for the blockages caused by non-flushable and supposedly ‘flushable’ wipes and clear up any confusion the consumer may have when it comes to flushing or binning the wipe.

“Fatbergs aren’t the only consequence of flushing wipes. Wipes are washing up on our beaches daily and contain fibres that contribute to the rising plastic in the ocean, with the potential to threaten marine life.”

Click here to read our WWT Explains report on Fats, Oil and Grease Removal

Author: Robin Hackett, editor, WWT
Topic: Sewer Networks
Tags: wet wipes , sewer blockages , Fats Oils and Grease , sewerage , fatberg , WRc , Water UK

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