Introduce a clear labelling system to stop unflushable items from blocking sewers and polluting our waters
Enforce more consistently Section 111 of the Water Industry Act 1991
Introduce a mandatory labelling system that clearly indicates what people can and cannot flush down the toilet to be applied to a list of commonly-flushed items
Ban the sale of wet wipes containing plastic
Our sewerage system is under unprecedented pressure. In addition to climate change and a growing population, it also faces blockages from the proliferation of single-use products.
These commonly-flushed items cause blockages known as ‘fatbergs’. These are the product of accumulations within the sewage system of waste products, fats, oils and greases. In 2017, a 250-metre long fatberg was discovered in the Whitechapel area of London which weighed as much as 19 elephants. There are approximately 300,000 sewage blockages annually in the UK which cost the country £100 million to clear. These blockages result in the flooding of thousands of properties, and the increased insurance and clean up costs that come along with such an event.
As the name suggests, fat is a big contributor to the creation of fatbergs, along with oils and grease (FOG). Section 111 of the Water Industry Act 1991 already makes it a criminal offence to put anything into the sewer which is likely to: damage it, restrict or block its flow, or affect the treatment and disposal of its contents. The government must hold businesses who persistently dispose of FOGs incorrectly to account through better enforcement of this existing legal requirement.
We believe that consumer labelling can help to tackle other fatberg culprits such as wet wipes, sanitary products, nappies, cotton wool, and condoms. These non-flushable items do not break down easily in the sewer, even if they are biodegradable. They are blocking our sewers, triggering sewage spills and littering our natural environment, with an average of 24.2 ‘sewage related items’ found per 100m of beach surveyed.
A ban on wet wipes containing plastic will help to reduce the amount of microplastics that make their way into our waterways, but will not be enough to stop fatbergs. We should also give households more information so they can take greater personal responsibility for their impact on the environment when they flush the toilet.
We need a mandatory labelling system that clearly indicates what people can and cannot flush down the toilet to be applied to a list of commonly-flushed items. This guidance should be based on an independent set of standards for ‘flushability’ developed by the government in consultation with industry and experts. Water UK initiatives such as “Fine to Flush” and “Bin the Wipe” have raised awareness of this issue among retailers and consumers, and some highstreet brands have adopted a label on their homebrand products. But we need a standard label across all relevant products so the public can play their part in helping to unblock our sewers.