Are wet wipes a sustainability issue for reflexologists to think about?

Lisa Wall 1

Various brands of UK wet wipes purchased 2019-2020 ©Lisa Wall

What are wet wipes?

Wet wipes are usually used for personal hygiene, make up removal or household cleaning (reference 1), but they’re also used by reflexologists to wipe feet.

The principle selling point of wipes and their appeal is that they’re convenient, pre-wet and ready to use. Reflexologists and clients are additionally assured that they are only used once, are clean and will be disposed of after use and not used on anyone else. To keep the wipes moist they come in plastic packaging which is not yet recyclable.

The growth of wet wipes

In the last ten to twenty years there’s been a dramatic growth in the use of wipes in the home and for personal hygiene. It’s a huge industry in the UK and we apparently throw away 11 billion wipes a year. Wipes manufacturers are not going to stop making wipes as it’s estimated to be worth as much as £16.5 billion a year (reference 2).

What are they made from?

Currently ninety percent of single-use wipes on the market are made from polyester fibres (plastic) and about ten percent are made from ‘naturally derived’ viscose (called rayon in the USA) (reference 3) . They are white in colour and are a non-woven matted structure or a spun web; they are not woven like towels or muslin fabrics.

Some wipes can be a mix of both fibres; this is often not mentioned on the packaging where they focus just on describing the ‘wetting’ ingredients. Wipes brands such as Waterwipes (reference 4) or Huggies ‘Pure’ baby wipes (reference 5) are mixed fibre wipes containing plastic (polyester) and viscose. Waterwipes state on their packaging that they’re “the world’s purest baby wipes” and “made from 99.9% water”. No-where on their packaging does it mention that their wipes are made of eighty percent polyester (plastic) and twenty percent viscose (this information is however found on their website after some searching). How can eighty percent ‘plastic based’ be marketed as ‘the world purest baby wipes’ when consumers may assume the ninety-nine percent water content in the wipes means they’re ‘pure’ and contain no plastic? It’s very confusing marketing for the consumer, as their ninety-nine percent water relates to the composition of the wetting agent not the originating fibre base.

Other uses for viscose

Viscose is not just used for wipes, it’s found in dresses, blouses, underwear and even socks. Viscose is an MMC, i.e. a Man-Made Cellulosic. To make viscose, natural materials such as wood, cotton or bamboo in a pulp form are chemically processed to become the viscose fibres. Hence the use of wipes firms labelling their wipes ‘natural’ or ‘naturally derived’ as it originates from a natural material. The processing into the viscose fibre is known to be an extremely toxic manufacturing process; cases have shown it to be toxic to workers and the environment in the chemicals that are used (reference 6).

Wipes and sewer blocking

Wipes have been identified by water companies as contributing to sewer blockages known as fatbergs (reference 7) and this was highlighted in television programmes such as the Channel 4 series ‘Fatberg Autopsy- Secrets of the Sewers’ in 2018 or the BBC series ‘War on Waste’ (reference 8) in 2019. Subsequently, there’s been a shift in consumers’ thinking over wet wipes and the issues they cause to the environment. There are now even wet-wipes brands claiming they are flushable.

The growth in eco-wipes and ‘green’ marketing

In the last two years we’ve seen a rise in wipes that are marketed as ‘99.9% Pure’, ’compostable’ or ‘biodegradable’. These wipes might also be marketed as ‘100% natural’, ‘plastic free’ and ‘better for the environment’, and we often also see the words ’organic’, ‘vegan’, ‘no cruelty to animals’ and ‘rainforest friendly’ on the packaging. Some, we are told, may even break down within 15 days in landfill (reference 9). The newer ‘eco’ wipes market is becoming another huge growth area for firms with a lot of new marketing terminology on packaging. This can often mean nothing for the actual product without any form of official certification. Some also use the term organic or natural but there currently no regulations around using these terms for cosmetic products. It’s only regulated for organic food.

What does all the ‘green’ terminology mean?

Most of the new green-terminology is coming from the plastics and packaging industry and you will notice terms such biodegradable, degradable and compostable. What do they mean?

Biodegradable: Just about everything is biodegradable. A plastic bag will apparently biodegrade in 450 years in the right conditions. Biodegradable refers to a product breaking down into natural elements, carbon dioxide and water vapour by organisms like bacteria and fungi. If a biodegradable product ends up in landfill it often becomes buried and the bacteria needed to break it down cannot survive under rubbish where there is very little oxygen. Biodegradable products in landfill can also produce methane.

Compostable: This means a product will break down into natural elements but only in a compost setting which usually involves heat. Compostable materials are typically made from plants and other organic materials. They break down much later than biodegradable items and can break down into nutrient rich products enriching soil, but many items need to be industrially composted as a home composting is not hot enough to break some ‘compostable’ items down.

Degradable Plastics: Degradable does not mean biodegradable, for example degradable carrier bags from Tesco do not compost; they may photo-degrade into smaller pieces. These are often called photodegradable plastics and tend to break down rather than completely decomposing.

How do we dispose of these new eco-wipes?

Often printed on many of the eco-wipes packaging are ‘dispose in household waste’ or ‘bag and bin’. They often use the ‘tidy man’ symbol which means it usually goes straight into our household waste for roadside collection. So manufacturers are aware wipes are either going to landfill or being incinerated depending on your local council disposal methods.

Lisa Wall 2The tidyman symbol is from ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ and asks you not to litter. It doesn't actually have anything to do with recycling, but acts as a reminder to dispose of your waste properly.


Wet wipe recycling by local authorities

Most UK councils don’t accept wet wipes into their recycling bins. Every wet wipe on the market is pretty much the same size, texture and colour. The waste collector can’t tell the difference between a plastic one or a compostable one.

Therefore, all types of wipes are treated the same for disposal, which is landfill or incineration, depending on the disposal processes of your local council. No one should think by using ‘eco’ wipes that they’re choosing a sustainable option because they appear to be more ecologically friendly, without looking at how they are disposed of or made.

The ‘eco’ wipes also miraculously don’t disappear or ‘biodegrade’ overnight. For this article manufacturers were contacted about the use of ‘biodegradability’ or ‘compostability’ on their wipes packaging and many didn’t reply back to me very clearly concerning the biodegradability or composting claims on their packaging. It does appear their claims are based on industrial composting research rather than home composting and it’s not clear on their packaging exactly what they mean by biodegradability.

Our rubbish also doesn’t quickly disappear in landfill either, it sits for a very long time under layers of rubbish away from oxygen and light where there are no microorganisms to break it down. Depending where one is in the UK, black bin waste either goes to landfill adding to the mountain of waste or is incinerated, releasing emissions into the air along with producing ‘green’ energy.

Some of us might put ‘compostable’ wipes into food waste bins or garden waste bin believing they will be composted, but rubbish collectors will deem them to have contaminated the whole collection. Even washing a plastic based wet wipe to re-use it may release thousands of tiny microfibres into our water ways.

Is there any UK or EU certification for these new eco-wipes?

None of the so called ‘eco-friendly’ wipes I’ve looked at carry symbols showing them to be compostable under EU or British standards EN 13432. These are symbols which some local councils accept on 'eco' items for recycling (reference 10). Items accepted are starch-based packaging or shopping bags. They need to be printed with the symbols (shown below) for them to be accepted.

 Lisa Wall 4

On the left is the EU ‘green seedling’ logo for Industrial compostability and on the right is the Vincotte ‘Home OK compost logo’. These are accepted for some council recycling in the UK (check with your local authority) and seen below printed on various packaging

 Lisa Wall 5

EU compostability symbols on ‘starch-based’ magazine packaging and shopping bags, January/ February 2020

Other symbols: you may see these symbols below on your wipes packaging

The green dot symbol (in green or black and white on your packaging)

Lisa Wall 6The Green Dot does not necessarily mean that the packaging is recyclable, will be recycled or has been recycled. It is a symbol used on packaging in some European countries and signifies that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.

The Mobus Loop

Lisa Wall 7Mobius loop indicates that an object is capable of being recycled, not that the object has been recycled or will be accepted in all recycling collection systems. Sometimes this symbol is used with a percentage figure in the middle to explain that the packaging contains x% of recycled material.

The FSC certification logo

Lisa Wall 8Paper, card and wood - The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo identifies wood-based products from well managed forests independently certified in accordance with the rules of the FSC. This logo can also be used for mixed ‘naturally-derived’ fibres but needs to say that in the packaging with its certification number

The Soil Association logo

Lisa Wall 9It is not mandatory to undergo certification for organic health and beauty products, only for food.

How many wipes do reflexologists possibly use in a year?

There are about 5000 members in the AoR; there may also be the same amount of reflexologists in each of the other professional groups, so there is possibly a large number of therapists using wet-wipes. Many don’t just use wet wipes on their clients but also for makeup removal, on their children or for wiping down surfaces.

Doing some basic calculations, if the 5000 members of AoR each used a pack of 65 single use wipes per week using 2-4 wipes per client and for wiping their hands pre and post treatment for say 15 clients. Over one week 5000 reflexologists could then be disposing of 325,000 wipes and over a year (45 weeks), that could equate to 14.625 million wipes disposed of into household waste just by AoR’s members. That amount really does make one sit back and think hard about what we are doing as an industry. With the current Coranovirus outbreak, the use of wipes may have increased ten-fold as people strive to keep germs at bay in their workspaces.

So what can we do?

We can start to ask questions and not accept what manufacturers want us to believe is printed on their packaging or we can choose to abandon single use wipes altogether once we have finished what we have. We need to think of the three R’s - Reduce our waste, Re-use and Recycle/ Re-purpose

Wet wipes are only used once and then disposed of; we pay for them, use them and throw them away, creating more waste. We need to think about more sustainable alternatives to these so called biodegradable or compostable wipes being marketed to us.

If firms are going to market their wipes as being ‘Pure’, ‘Biodegradable’ or ‘Compostable’ they need to have the relevant certifications on their products and not just market them to us as ‘greener’ alternatives to plastic based wipes. We can also choose to use alternatives such flannels, muslin wipes or those made by Cheeky Wipes (reference 11) already being used by reflexologists or make our own out of towels.

It might be another ten years before manufacturers are forced to be more open and transparent about how to dispose of their ‘eco’ wipes. In that time, there will be an even higher mountain of waste created by therapists. Currently, the terms biodegradable and compostable have no relevance in UK law for wipes. If the manufacturers currently don’t provide any evidence for what they put on their packaging such as certification and symbols, then what hope is there for the consumer to know what they are buying and for councils to accept them with other items for recycling?

We as a profession should look to set ourselves a sustainability mantra and have our own five R’s list of sustainability principles such as:

1. Refuse to use single use items in the first place
2. Work to Reduce our use of single use items
3. Re-use things where we can
4. Repurpose if we can
5. Recycle them once we have finished with them or when they have worn out and know they are being recycled and not going to landfill

These principles should be at the heart of everything we do but we can’t do it overnight; we need to start cleaning up our own carbon footprint and our waste mountain as reflexologists.

Lisa Wall MAR



2. Call to ditch the 11,000,000,000 polluting wet wipes we use each year, Friday 14 Jun 2019 7:00am

3. Biodegradable wet wipe options for wipe business from manufacturer and supplier accessed 29/01/2020

4. Waterwipes “ Our wipe material is a blend of 80% polyester and 20% viscose, which makes 20% of our wipe biodegradable. We are currently working on making our wipes 100% biodegradable - and have a commitment to do this by the end of 2020” accessed 07/02/2020

5. Huggies Pure Baby Wipes “65% natural fibres (wood pulp) to gently care for baby's skin, 35% plastic to prevent the wipe tearing in use.” accessed 07/02/2020

6. What are you wearing right now? If it is rayon or viscose, chances are it comes from the Amazon. 9 September 2019 and How Viscose Rayon fabric Masquerades as Bamboo Clothing March 29, 2017

7. Monster’ fatberg found blocking East London sewer 12 September 2017

8. Fatberg Autopsy – Secrets of the Sewers’ series first shown in April 2018 and ‘War on Plastic with High and Anita’, first shown in June 2019 Three part series

9. Mum and You baby wipes: from their website: “Please do not flush. Biodegradable wipes are designed to break down in 15 days in landfill”

10. Packaging waste directive and standards for compostability EN 13432

11. Cheeky Wipes

Some other sources consulted:

Friends of the Earth – ‘Wet wipes keeping them out of our sea and sewers’,

Keep Britain Tidy -

The Soil Association UK – Certification and Wellbeing

The Soil Association UK – Types of Certification for textiles

The Soil Association UK – Forest testing schemes

Consumers being mislead by labelling on organic beauty products – The Guardian Monday 24 April 2017

European bio-plastic - ‘What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable’ -

Thurrock Council A to Z of waste and recyclable items -

Greenwashing and labelling -

Forest Stewardship Council -

Forest Stewardship Council -

Organic Labelling -

Recycle Now - ‘Recycling symbols explained’ ,

Cosmetics labelling -

Plasgran – ‘Plastic recycling symbols. What do they mean?’,

British Plastics federation -

Water UK – ‘Leading retailers not embracing wet wipes flushability standard’ , 30 May 2019 -

FSC certified viscose -

Bamboo becomes rayon -

Water UK – ‘Fine to flush a major new development in the fight against fatbergs’ , 11 Jan 2019-

CODE OF PRACTICE: Communicating Appropriate Disposal Pathways for Nonwoven Wipes to Protect Wastewater Systems 2nd Edition 2017 -

BBC – ‘War on Waste with Hugh and Anita’, Three part series 10th June – 24 June 2019

Rayon and Viscose -

Engineering and Technology Journal: ‘Microplastics problem exacerbated by wearing polyester clothes, study reveals’ Tuesday, March 10, 2020 -

Email correspondence 2019-2020 with single-use wipe manufacturers: Boots Cucumber Cleansing wipes, Boots Tea tree and Witch Hazel wipes and Boots Biodegradable baby wipes (Boots/ Walmart) , Kinder by Nature baby wipes (Jackson Reece), Cleansing Wipes (Nivea - Biersdorf AG), Cheeky Panda Sensitive bamboo wipes (Cheeky Panda Limited), Dove Baby Wipes (Unilever), Simple biodegradable cleansing wipes (Unilever), Waterwipes (Irish BreezeUC), Pampers Aqua Pure (Proctor and Gamble Service GmBH), Natracare Baby Wipes (Natra care LLC) , Huggies Pure (Kimberley Clark), Supersoft Soothing Flushable wipes (Sainsburys) Cheeky Wipes, Simply gentle organic cotton cloths (un wetted non-woven wipes) Organic Facial Wipes (Neal’s Yard) and Fragrances baby Wipes and Extra sensitive baby wipes (Aldi UK)