Wipes are sneaky. Environmentalists can spend countless hours discussing the benefit-versus-harm of everything from glass jars and compostable forks to Legos, but when if you bring up wipes you’re likely to get a lot of blank looks.
That’s because wipes fly under the radar. They look like paper, but their whole purpose in life is to do what most paper can’t: hold together while wet. If you don’t know what I’m talking about think about the last time you ordered a messy meal in a restaurant and with your napkins they brought you a Wet Nap.
In fact, the Wet Nap was where it all started over a half century ago when it was invented and trademarked by a guy named Arthur Julius, among whose first customers was a little fast-food chain named Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today the wipe, or “moist towelette” as it is also known, has morphed into literally thousands of different products. There are wipes for polishing furniture, stopping acne, cleaning babies’ bottoms, and disinfecting countertops. There are wipes for applying perfume, lotion and deodorant, wipes for sanitizing make up brushes, soothing hemorrhoids, and removing nail polish. PS: Disposable face masks are wipes, too. (I first wrote about wipes in this post in 2021.)
Ninety-nine percent of wipes are made with varying combinations of plastics and cotton which are bound together by a big machine that sprays high pressure water at them until they become hopelessly enmeshed. Impress your friends when you tell them this process is called “hydroentanglement”! The material that results from this process is appealingly called “spunlace,” although I was disappointed to learn that it involves no lace and no spinning.
So, when we talk about staying away from Single Use Plastics and Disposable Plastics, or the harm they do to the animals and the landscape and our bodies, we are not just talking about Styrofoam cups and plastic take-out containers, but we’re also talking about wipes.
But it gets worse. Because even though wipes contain plastic, they feel like cloth or paper, so lots of people flush them down the toilet. Have you ever heard of a fatberg? It is a monumental sewer blockage. The term was coined around 2010, and in 2015 a British sewer company reported that two-thirds of their blockages are now caused by… wipes.
But what about “flushable” wipes? You may reasonably ask. The good news is that if a personal care wipe (the kind you clean your tush with) is labeled “flushable” it cannot contain plastic. Yay!
The bad news is that sewer experts will tell you that when it comes to preventing blockages, it probably doesn’t matter. This is because the wipe just doesn’t have enough time or agitation to disintegrate before it reaches the sewage pump. If we are lucky, the wipe gets filtered out and set aside to be either landfilled or burned. If not? Fatberg.
What’s more, in 2019 Forbes conducted an independent study that tested 101 different kinds of wipes, 23 of which were labeled “flushable,” for disintegration and “flushability.”
Ahem. Not one of them passed.
My take-away? Wipes are pretty much all bad news. Yes, they belong in some places— emergency medical kits so cuts can be quickly sterilized, for example. But on the whole wipes represent yet another example of the drive towards Extreme Convenience in contemporary culture, one that depends upon disposable plastic to exist. And if you’ve read any of my previous posts you know that disposable plastic represents such drastic, irreparable harm to our bodies, the animals and our environment that we need to kick our addiction to it, and the sooner the better.