Proposed government ban on wet wipes: Why catering outlets should act now

The war on plastics is raging on, and those working in catering establishments will no doubt be well aware of this consumer-driven movement that has forced so many changes within the industry. From the charge on plastic carrier bags to the banning of microbeads in beauty products, there is mounting evidence to show that environmentally motivated changes to consumer habits are becoming increasingly common and can occur at a rapid pace. The next movement that we would like to see is around hidden plastics, which are contained within so many products that people use on a daily basis, yet are damaging the environment in a drastic way.

From antibacterial cleaning wipes that catering staff might use to ensure kitchen and bathroom surfaces are germ-free, to nappies and sanitary products that your customers are using in toilet facilities, the vast majority contain microplastics woven into the fibres which simply cannot biodegrade. This is clearly a concern for those who worry about the amount of waste being sent to landfill, as disposable wipes, nappies and sanitary items will take decades to break down – if ever. But the more urgent problem arises when people incorrectly assume they can flush these products down the toilet. Your cleaning team may well believe they are acting in the right way when they use so-called flushable wipes to sterilise surfaces and then flush them down the toilet, rather than placing them in the bin. But the reality is that no wipe should ever be flushed down the toilet, as the microplastics woven into the fabric means that they do not disintegrate in the same way as toilet paper. As a result, these items are clogging up our nation’s sewers and mounting up on riverbeds and shores, creating an expensive problem and harming marine life.

We recently conducted a survey that found 31% of people admit to flushing wipes down the toilet, despite 52% of respondents claiming to be ‘very aware’ of the dangers of doing so. Anecdotally, we know that people are doing this on a large scale, and many problems that our engineers deal with at catering venues are the result of blockages caused by inappropriate products being flushed down toilets – rather than being disposed of in a bin.

It can sometimes seem difficult for managers of such venues to change customer behaviour, but the actions of your employees could be a more effective place to begin. Informing cleaning staff of the correct way to dispose of single-use wipes and highlighting the risks of flushing could have an immediate impact on the problem. You might also consider alternatives to using disposable wipes, which could prove more cost-effective, as well as being kinder to the environment. Many establishments already do this and have systems such as colour-coded cloths for cleaning different zones and surfaces. Once this is under control, you could then consider what signage and facilities could be installed to advise customers on the issue. For example, many people admit to flushing sanitary products down the toilet, simply because there is no suitable disposal unit in toilet cubicles. Auditing your facilities and ensuring there are adequate bins, as well as fitting signage that advises customers of how and where to dispose of products such as baby wipes, nappies and other waste, could result in a large-scale change to consumer behaviour and is a relatively simple, inexpensive activity.

Earlier this year, the government announced it was considering a ban on all disposable wipes, as a way to tackle the damage they cause to the environment. We asked more than 1,000 people for their thoughts on this during our recent research and concluded that 59% would not be in favour of the government banning all types of disposable wipes. The most common reason behind this answer was that people believe there is nothing wrong with the products, as long as they are being disposed of correctly. If you know that your own business relies heavily on disposable wipes – which could be anything from antibacterial wipes to hand sanitising wipes – this sort of government action could well come as a shock. While the legislation is not due to change any time soon, it would be wise for people to preempt this by disposing of the products in the right way and cutting their use. Not only would this have an immediate impact on the number of blockages caused by disposable wipes, but it would also mean that people are readily using alternatives and have become accustomed to this in the event of a ban in the future.

We have witnessed how quickly public opinion can lead to a legislative change, so acting now and adapting your behaviour accordingly could well minimise the impact of any new laws in the future, with the added benefit of finding more environmentally sound ways of operating your business.

By Michelle Ringland the head of marketing of drain cleaning and repair specialist Lanes Group

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