A piece by Ben Webster, Environment Editor, in Wednesday’s Times:
More than 5,000 wet wipes have been found on a short stretch of the Thames foreshore, the highest concentration recorded.
They have changed the shape of the riverbed near Hammersmith Bridge in west London, creating mounds visible at low tide, according to the charity Thames21. It held a litter pick during which 5,453 wet wipes were collected from a 116 sq m patch — almost 50 per square metre.
Wipes enter the river via sewerage overflow pipes having been flushed down lavatories. About 20 billion are used annually in the UK and many contain resins to hold fibres together, preventing them from breaking down in water. Water companies say that wipes, particularly baby wipes, make up 93 per cent of the material that causes sewer blockages, combining with cooking oil poured down drains to form “fatbergs”.
There is a sewerage overflow pipe close to where the wipes were found on the Thames but the main reason so many gathered there is because it is on the inside of a bend, where the water moves more slowly.
“Do not flush” labels on packaging are not prominent enough, Thames21 said. Debbie Leach, its chief executive, said wipes were a less obvious problem in rivers than other litter, such as plastic bottles, because they tended to sink. The low mounds they form look natural from a distance because they combine with sediment and twigs.
“The sheer quantity of these wet wipes shows the urgency of this problem,” she said. “As a country, action is being taken about other products which contain plastic such as bottles and cotton buds. We now need to widen our attention to include wet wipes and sanitary products which contain plastic and are being flushed into our rivers.”
Chinese scientists have developed technology which they say could make wipes that are strong when being used but disintegrate easily in water.
Many types of wipe use resins to hold fibres together and these prevent them from breaking down in water. A team from Donghua University, in Shanghai found a way of entangling fibres without using resins by firing jets of water at them.
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