I find myself in the highly unusual position of agreeing with Michael Gove. I know, I know. Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the environment secretary is, I believe, correct on the issue of toiletries and cleaning wipes made from plastic, which his department plans to “eliminate” in the next phase of their so-called “war against plastic”, a campaign that has outlawed microbeads in toiletries, seen an obligatory charge on plastic shopping bags and proposes a ban on plastic straws (Britain throws away over 8.5 billion of them a year) and plastic-centred cottonbuds. Galvanised by a huge surge in public support for more responsible plastic use (sparked largely by David Attenborough’s emotional rally cry in the finale of Blue Planet II, Britain’s most-watched TV show of 2017), Gove and his department have now set their sights on wipes. A new statement from DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) said, “As part of our 25-year environment plan we have pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products that include plastic such as wet wipes.”
Britain’s sewer systems are clogged with these wipes – so many that, in one part of west London, a hardened wipe-berg has permanently changed the shape of the riverbed. Up the road in Hammersmith, officials recently uncovered more than 5,000 in just 116 square metres, the largest-ever number in a single location.
The main problem is not wipes in and of themselves – although, whichever way you shake it, they are hugely and needlessly wasteful and, best-case scenario, they either sit in landfill indefinitely or get incinerated, generating gases. The main problem is that people – loads of people, idiotic people – flush them down the loo, sending them into the sewage system and ultimately the sea, where they cause grave harm to birds (who unwittingly feed their babies plastic, choking or poisoning them) and sea creatures, who become tangled, ingest pollutants and feed the contaminated milk to their young.
The problem is a huge one and clearly will not improve without intervention and legislation. The issue, though, isn’t as simple as we, the privileged, like to believe. I’m the co-founder of Beauty Banks, a non-profit scheme that provides essential toiletries to the homeless and seriously poor and, yes, these “essential” items really do include wipes. Homeless people live transient lives. They frequently have no access to hot showers, baths or even a sink. They’re often dependent on wipes (just as many disabled, sick, elderly and incapacitated people are) to stay as relatively clean as they can. Mother-and-baby units for the seriously poor frequently have dozens of families sharing one or two washing stations, making wipes the only currently viable option for avoiding nappy rash and bacterial infections. Charitable organisations papering over the subsidence caused by severe austerity cuts aren’t trying to waste resources – they’re trying to do their work with the criminally few they have. Tampons and sanitary towels – the other hotly debated environmental enemy – are also desperately needed. Well-meaning people frequently tell charities and schemes like Beauty Banks to supply reusable plastic menstrual cups and washable towels instead. But, again, the issue is complex.
Non-profits working to supply sanitary protection to those in need frequently struggle to distribute kind donations of menstrual cups, because they’re extremely difficult to use in a charitable context and, generally speaking, unwanted by end-users, for various reasons. They’re frequently neither practical nor hygienic for homeless or temporarily housed people, who lack access to the privacy, laundry and sanitation facilities required for reusable methods. Some religious groups and minority cultures have an instinctive or fundamental aversion to internal methods of protection. Many of our Beauty Banks users are very young, still coming to grips with their changing bodies, often embarrassed to discuss their methods, especially with charities reliant on the kindness of volunteer staff. To ask these usually unqualified people (many of them male) to become educators to women, young and old, from different cultures, on their period-protection methods is unrealistic and often not appropriate.
There is no justifiable reason why biodegradable wipes are made almost exclusively by niche brands and sold in specialist health stores
So, however ecologically aware and keen in our own lives and business practices to make more responsible choices, we should also be aware that those proactive consumer options are a privilege not afforded everyone. We at Beauty Banks and, I suspect, at other schemes, are torn between wanting to do the right thing for the planet and trying not to impose our own priorities on those who are often living in truly desperate circumstances. It seems unjust to expect those with next to nothing to be at the vanguard of hygienic alternatives. Asking people to buy baby wipes, towels, disposable razors for others – while hoping they will not buy the same items for themselves – leaves us conflicted, to say the least.
But why should we feel bad in trying to do good, when there are companies knowingly doing bad? The responsibility to answer such a complex social and ecological problem should lie squarely on the shoulders of toiletries companies, who churn out millions of single-use plastics for no reason other than profit. There is no justifiable reason why biodegradable wipes are made almost exclusively by niche brands and sold in specialist health stores and websites, usually at a much higher price point, when the technology – allowing wipes to be made from 100 per cent renewable, compostable, chlorine-free, plant-based material – is already established and available to any big brand that cares to place ethics higher in its priorities than greedy shareholders. Likewise, more ecologically sound tampons and towels are available, but scarcely and at a premium that deters people from making the right choice. Just as we are unwittingly expecting poor people to save the planet, huge multinationals are allowing small brands to take the financial hit of creating ethical alternatives.
The only way to vote is with our wallets, on behalf of those who can’t. It’s in the interests of the planet, but also our own. Skin cleansed with wipes is never as good as it would be cleaned properly with a flannel (taking off make-up with a wipe is much like washing your clothes in Febreze) and a baby’s bum will never be as clean as it is after a wet sponge-down. A good go at a basin or loo seat with a washable cloth is not only more responsible than a sweep with a wipe, but invariably yields better results. “The future of all life now depends on us,” David Attenborough said at the end of Blue Planet II. It sounds dramatic but, in this case, until the big brands step up, all you need to do is amend your shopping list and walk the extra 10 seconds to the bin.