The fight against fatbergs received a major boost today 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 don’t 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 which weighed as much as nineteen elephants and a 64-metre fatberg which 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% 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.”
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’ 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.
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.
Following today’s publication, Dr. Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society said:
“In 2018, during our annual Great British Beach Clean and survey, we found on average 12 wet wipes per 100m of beach cleaned and surveyed – an increase of over 300% over the last decade. We want a simple system where a product is either clearly labelled as ‘do not flush’ or has passed the ‘fine to flush’ standard and has the logo on the pack. We know that there is huge confusion for consumers on which products can be flushed, resulting in millions being spent on blockages every year.
Unfortunately, some products on the market labelled as flushable have been known to contain plastic fibres adding to plastic pollution in our oceans. In addition, by not being designed for realistic conditions found in UK sewers, they may not break down fast enough and therefore potentially contribute to blockages.
We will be asking retailers to ensure any product they tell consumers can be flushed, passes this new standard which has been designed by UK water companies, and any products which do not meet this standard are clearly labelled as ‘do not flush.’ This helps consumers make the right choices helping to reduce any potential blockages and know that their flushable product is also plastic free.”