The consumption of wipes is increasing during lockdown. Shall we fix this? Cloth towels, sponges, hands, toilet paper or bidet are alternatives.
In recent years, interest in the impacts generated by the current model of production, consumption and waste generation of single-use products, especially plastics, has increased.
Wet wipes are an example of products that become waste after one use and are mostly made of plastics. The focus must be on these products since they represent an important part of the urban solid waste flows generated and cause environmental, economic and social impacts.
Wet wipes are often used for infant hygiene as a substitute for soap and water, when changing diapers or for cleaning babies’ faces and hands. Its use has also become part of the daily life of adults, in household cleaning or personal hygiene.
Wet wipes are sold on the market as disposable wipes, which are pre-moistened and do not meet the legally set standards for cleaning and reuse. They are made from non-woven fabrics and are saturated with a cleaning solution.
- Non-woven fabrics: The composition material of wet wipes is a non-woven fabric or synthetic plastic thread similar to that used for diapers. Typically, the fabric is made of fibres, such as cotton and rayon, as well as plastic resins such as polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene.
- Cleaning substances: Water is the main substance and serves as a carrier and diluent for the other components. Intimate hygiene wipes also contain mild detergents mixed with moisturizing agents, perfumes, and preservatives. Moisturizing or humidifying agents such as propylene glycol and glycerin are added to prevent the solution from drying out. Other components include preservatives, such as methyl and propyl parabens and various perfumes. Sometimes wet wipes can also carry biocides, such as antimicrobial agents.
- Packaging components: Their packaging is made of plastic (usually PET or PE) to keep the wipes moist as long as possible.
In 2017, around 69 billion individual wipes were consumed in the EU-28 (with an average annual consumption of 130 wet wipes per person), equivalent to 511,000 tonnes of waste (1 kg of wet wipes per person annually).
Economic problems from the use of wet wipess
Wet wipes, disposable menstrual products, and other waste in sewage cause substantial damage to sewer networks. Some of the consequences of flushing these products down the toilet are: pipe blockage causing drainage problems, pump clogging and inhibition of electronic sensors (creating chain reactions in pumping stations that lead to sewage spills). These disturbances increase the frequency of needed maintenance and repairs at the facilities. Infrastructures clogged with wet wipes and other wastewater residues carry significant operational limitations and additional operating costs, primarily in terms of labour, waste disposal, and premature replacement of equipment such as pumps and other parts.
It is estimated that the maintenance and unblocking of these facilities, together with the elimination of residual water residues in treatment plants, costs the European Union between 500 and 1,000 million euros annually. This cost is passed on to all consumers through water bills, whether they use these products or not.
The Catalan Water Agency has calculated that, for a city of 200,000 inhabitants, the inadequate management of wet wipes and other similar products generates, on average, an extra annual cost of € 150,000 for the sanitation system. Data presented at the National Environment Congress (Conama-2012) by the Spanish Association of Water Supply and Sanitation (AEAS) indicates that this situation causes an 18% increase in the cost of maintaining sanitation systems.
Health problems from the use of wet wipes
Wet wipes can have dangerous compounds like Methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, parabens, quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin, or unknown perfume chemicals, which can mainly cause allergy problems.
Contamination of water by marine debris can also cause an increased risk of bacteria (like E. Coli) and viral contamination of coastal waters. Consumption or contact with contaminated water can increase the risk of contagion of hepatitis, cholera, typhoid fever, diarrhoea, bacillary dysentery and skin rashes.
Environmental problems from the use of wet wipes
The environmental impacts of wet wipes are generally caused by the production and distribution processes of the product, and those of waste generation, treatment and disposal after use.
The production of wet wipes, for instance, requires a high water consumption to keep the fibres saturated. There are also impacts caused by the extraction (oil) and transportation of raw materials throughout the life cycle, beyond the final product.
Disposable menstrual products and wet wipes are among the 10 most commonly found disposable plastic products in the EU’s marine environment. The European Commission classifies these products as “sanitary applications” and are the fifth most common disposable plastic item in Europe. These 10 products represent 86% of the single-use plastic of the waste found on beaches and are responsible for more than half of the marine plastic waste.
The alternative is simple
1. Cloth wipes
We can make them at home or buy them in specialized stores. To go out, simply transport them already wet in a container, or take a spray to moisten when needed. More and more families are discovering the advantages and there are many tricks to get the most out of it.
To keep it clean, wash it with cold water after each use and, once a day, with hot soapy water. If the changing table does not fit in the bathroom, we can have a container of clean water next to it at all times. To disinfect the sponge, you just have to dampen it and place in the microwave for a while or put it in the washing machine. Of course, natural sponges do not withstand this type of washing and dissolve after a short time of use. If we prefer, instead of a sponge we can use a mitt.
Perhaps some people are fussy, but the easiest way is to put the child under the tap and use your hand to clean their butt. Then we just have to make sure to wash our hands well with soap and water, ensuring no poop is left under our nails.
4. Toilet paper
Toilet paper breaks down very easily. It’s what we find in most public toilets, also in schools, so it is convenient for us to teach kids to wash with paper because sooner or later, this is how they will have to wash. There is recycled paper which does not contribute to forest over-exploitation.
If we think that toilet paper is not enough, our choice is the bidet. Not all bathrooms have them, but there are interesting alternatives:
- Hand bidet: is a type of shower that is installed next to the toilet.
- Toilet with built-in bidet: these are toilets that have a built-in water jet that allows them to do the same service as a bidet.
- Adaptable toilet bowl: a complement that is put on the toilet bowl and allows to activate a water jet similar to that of the bidet.