War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita: ‘Hidden’ plastics placed in the spotlight

Episode two of the BBC's War on Plastic series on Tuesday night (17 June) saw presenters Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani take a deeper delve into the UK's plastics addiction, exposing invisible plastic particles from unexpected sources. Could this be the start of a war on microplastics?

War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita: ‘Hidden’ plastics placed in the spotlight

An average of 20 wet wipes were found per 100 metres of beach across the UK between 2015 and 2020.

After tackling the most prevalent kind of plastics in UK homes – namely single-use packaging for food and drink – during last week’s pilot episode, Rani and Fearnley-Whittingstall this week turned their attention to plastic use in the bathroom.

But instead of angling the conversation on the most visible plastics in this space, such as toiletry bottles, toothpaste tubes and plastic toothbrushes, the episode honed in on sources of plastic that the residents on the show’s “average British street” were not aware of – namely those found in wet wipes, microfibres from clothing and other kinds of microplastic.

The 60-minute episode saw the residents experience, first-hand, the environmental consequences of the 11 billion wet wipes sold in the UK every year, 90% of which contain some form of plastic. During a visit to a local sewage plant, they were confronted by 16 tonnes of waste wet wipes which had been flushed in the Bristol city-region alone over a 3.5-day period.

While the residents were all aware that flushing wet wipes could lead to the creation of fatbergs, most did not know that the wipes themselves – and not just the packaging they come in – are a single-use plastic product.

With lab testing of wipes made by three of the UK’s biggest wet wipe producers – Kimberly Clark, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Johnson & Johnson – proving that they contained at least 30% plastics, Rani began to ask why consumers felt so uninformed about this fact.

She quickly discovered that companies are not currently required by either EU or UK to law to disclose the ingredients of the wipes themselves, only of the liquid used to coat them. However, this is set to change in summer 2021, when the EU’s new requirement for wet wipe makers to disclose their composition and to provide on-pack information regarding their environmental impact will come into force. This legislation will be applied to the UK regardless of what happens with Brexit.

For Rani, this legislation is too little, too late, for a nation which currently spends £0.5bn on wet wipes annually. She noted that at current consumption rates, EU consumers are set to use 22 billion wet wipes before the new legislation is implemented.

“We can only make an informed choice if we know what we are buying, and, at the moment, we haven’t got a clue,” she said. “I don’t know why these companies can’t just say on their packets, right now, that wet wipes contain plastic.”

Corporate response

When she wrote to Kimberly Clark, P&G and Johnson & Johnson about this issue, only the latter said it would act on on-pack labelling regarding wet wipes ahead of the EU deadline. Specifically, Johnson & Johnson said it would add this information in 2020, but repeatedly refused to let Rani meet someone to discuss the reasoning behind this timeframe.

Spokespeople for Kimberley Clark and P&G both told Rani that they would “fully comply” with the EU legislation but would not be taking action before its implementation. When she went to these companies’ respective offices to persuade them to change their minds, she was denied permission to film on private property. 

Speaking to edie after the episode aired, a spokesperson for Kimberly Clark said the company had “recognised the concerns highlighted by the BBC” and has now committed to add an on-pack label detailing the plastic content of its Huggies Baby Wipes as part of its 2020 packaging update. It will also publish the fact that these wipes are made from 35% plastic and 65% natural fibres on its website “shortly”.

“Huggies Baby Wipes actually contain far less plastic fibres compared to all other leading wipes brands on the market and we are already exploring ways to reduce this even more, with a goal of ultimately eliminating plastic completely,” the spokesperson said. “We are already working to find more sustainable alternatives in collaboration with NGOs, universities, suppliers and organisations such as WRAP.”

P&G has not made any new commitments in light of the BBC’s findings. It currently labels all wipes packaging with a “do not flush” message and details information about the composition of its Pampers wet wipes online, and states that it will have these conversations directly with consumers if they get in touch via email or phone.

“We continually review our labelling to ensure we comply with all current and monitor proposed regulations so that we are ready to implement them when they come into force,” a P&G spokesperson told edie. “The EU Single Use Plastic Directive will be a central consideration for us as we continue to review our packaging labelling on wipes. At this stage we cannot confirm any potential timelines since secondary legislation on harmonisation of labelling requirements is required to be established before the EU Single Use Plastic Directive.”

The spokesperson was also keen to highlight the work which P&G is doing to help champion a closed-loop model for wet wipes with plastic content. It is notably a member of WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact and has partnered with the Angelini group to help develop recycling facilities for absorbent hygiene products such as wipes, at a scale which can be used by cities. This technology is currently operational at industrial scale in Italy, with the partnership aiming to install nine other recycling plants in cities by 2030.

Responding to the episode, a spokesperson from Johnson & Johnson said: “We have a number of global projects underway to improve the sustainability of our baby and skincare wipes, and we’re in the process of testing alternative fabrics to find an option that provides the same quality, without the plastic.

“We follow regulation and industry best practice to ensure that our product labelling is clear and easy to understand with regard to proper disposal. From next year, we will be updating our wipes labels to explain that wipes contain plastic, in line with new EU regulation. 

“Currently, our baby and skincare wipes are composed of a polyester blend fabric. The standardised ‘Do Not Flush’ and ‘Tidy Man’ logos are displayed on all our wipes, across every range, which is how we encourage consumers to adopt environmentally responsible behaviour.”

Managing microplastics

While Rani was busy with wet wipes, Fearnley-Whittingstall was exploring two even less obvious contributors to plastic pollution – our washing machines and the air that we breathe.

Research suggests that microfibres account for 85% of shoreline pollution globally but, given that they are usually invisible to the naked eye, consumer awareness of this issue has been slower to take hold than with items such as straws, plastic bottles and six-pack rings. Indeed, only 4% of edie readers said that microfibres would be a “hot” sustainability topic of 2019, compared with 26% for plastic packaging.

Friends of the Earth has claimed that the UK’s microfibres largely originate from one of four sources: vehicle tyres, clothing, plastic pellets and paint used for buildings and road markings. The episode honed in on the second of these sources, re-iterating Friends of the Earth’s finding that up to 2,900 tonnes of microplastics from the washing of synthetic clothing such as fleeces could be passing through wastewater treatment into our rivers and estuaries every year.

To help viewers understand their individual contribution to this issue, borne from the fact that two-thirds of clothing currently in UK wardrobes contain plastics, he spoke with Plymouth University’s lead marine scientist Imogen Napper, who explained that the average wash load of 6kg of acrylic clothing would send 700,000 microfibres down the drain.

No countries are currently required to ensure that all washing machines are manufactured with a built-in microfibre filter, Napper added. But she went on to emphasise the fact that microplastic pollution is even more pronounced in the air that we breathe than in the marine habitat.

Testing of air in central London found that the air contained 700 plastic microparticles per square metre, per minute . And back on the show’s Bristol street, plastic particles so small that they could “easily” be inhaled deeply were found in all homes tested, and at fairly equal proportions in each room.

Research into the effects of human inhalation are consumption of microplastics over time are currently limited. This is because this is a fairly new field of study, with the first research into plastics in human stools having been completed in October last year.  Since then, WWF has concluded that the average person is likely to be ingesting five grams of plastic every week through food and drink alone – the equivalent weight of a credit card.

“I’ve thought about (microplastics) and worried about them in the sea, but I’ve just discovered that they’re everywhere – they’re raining down invisible all around us,” Fearnley-Whittingstall concluded.

“We need to be scared. Only by being scared for our own lives will we be concerned enough to do something about plastics.”

edie’s Plastics Hub  

If you’re keen to find out more about this topic, edie runs a dedicated Plastics Hub – a content-driven campaign that will support sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics. Access the hub here and make your own plastics pledge here

Sarah George

Comments (3)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    This show has been a real eye opener and should be required watching at schools. Only by educating the next generation and by using pester power will there be the massive cultural change needed to have a real impact.

    Seeing the 16 tonnes of wipes disposed of my one city (Bristol) in 3 days was astounding and has made me reconsider my use of wipes but what to use in replacement? Microfibre cloths would be the obvious but aren’t they made of synthetic materials too?

    As for the single use packaging around fruit and veg, well don’t get me started. In Morrisons this week I wanted some apples, loose they were 32p each. In a pack of 6, in plastic, they were 20p each!! WTF! And the plastic wrapping is not recyclable at this time! Supermarkets in Asia are now using banana leaves to package bundles of vegetables so how about we do the same.

    My only complaint about the programme is they are focusing on the amount of plastic but not on the alternatives enough. It is all well and good telling us wipes are made of 95% plastic but give some examples of what sustainable options there are to replace them and at what financial cost.

    Otherwise it is a great investigation and really hits home the massive impact our wasteful, convenience based, consumer driven life is having.

  2. Graham Nicholls says:

    I saw a programme on how tea bags were made. You guessed it, with plastic, approx 30%, if I recall correctly. I wonder how much I’ve been drinking over the years, and how much is now in my garden due to composting.
    Contacted Taylor’s of Harrogate who make the tea I drink and they said they’re replacing plastic in their bags. Don’t know if it’s complete. I’d like to know what they’re using as well.

  3. Keiron Shatwell says:

    I checked while in a supermarket and microfibre cloths are indeed made from synthetic fibres as are the humble J cloth.

    I guess the few fibres lost from washing the microfibre cloths is an order of magnitude better than single use disposable wipes and given the ecological disaster that can be caused by cotton I think the lesser of two evils comes into play here. So I’m ditching the wipes and investing in some reusable, washable cloths.

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