‘Skip Autopsy’ reveals up to a quarter of wet wipes sold in the UK could end up in the sewer network

30 November 2020


Study finds wipes containing plastic fibres make up 80% of items being wrongly flushed.


Anglian Water has conducted a study of plastics being wrongly flushed into one of their water recycling centres, finding wet wipes the biggest culprit along with a variety of other household products.


The study, in partnership with the School of Chemistry at the University of East Anglia and consultancy Mott MacDonald, involved taking a number of random samples from the skips at the water recycling centre in Newmarket. As part of the initial screening process of waste water, any rubbish is removed and collected before the water goes onto the next stage of the treatment process.


The rubbish samples were analysed to identify the quantity and types of plastic removed at this early stage, to understand what types of items these plastics originally came from.


The aptly named, ‘skip autopsy’ found the most common offender to be wet wipes and that 80%* of those found contained plastics, which do not break down in the sewer network. Sanitary and personal hygiene products were the second most common category although various other plastic items such as toys, food wrappers, take away coffee lids and pens were also identified.


Since the beginning of 2015, over 48 tonnes of such waste have been removed from the Newmarket water recycling centre. For a local population of about 30,000 people, that equates to over 200 wipes for each person -  and the study therefore estimates that of the 11 billion wet wipes sold each year in the UK, roughly 2.5 billion are wrongly flushed away.


Anglian Water’s Keep it Clear programme has run for the past decade and focuses on educating customers about the devastating environmental impacts that can result from the wrong items being flushed away.


Regan Harris from Anglian Water said, “Putting the wrong things down the loo can cause havoc in the sewer network. Wipes, cotton buds and sanitary items all contain plastic that can’t break down, causing blockages, which can ultimately lead to sewer flooding in peoples’ homes or the environment.


“Every 15 minutes, our teams deal with a blockage in our network, clearing around 40,000 in a year. 80% of those sewer blockages are avoidable and are caused by items that should be put into the bin. The results from this study will help raise awareness of what not to flush down the loo and the potential consequences of blockages and sewer spills caused by these unflushable items. Ultimately, only the 3 ‘p’s should be flushed – pee, poo and (toilet) paper.”


Last year the water industry launched the very first, industry standard for flushable wet wipes. Known as the ‘Fine to Flush’ specification, only wet wipes that meet strict criteria and carry the approved logo, should actually be flushed down the toilet. Currently, only one brand of moist toilet tissue meets this standard in the UK.


Click here to watch a video about the skip autopsy project.