Baby wipes, moist towelettes, wet naps — whatever you call them, they all serve essentially the same purpose. Wet wipes are single-use, moist, sanitary paper products used for personal hygiene or household cleaning. These handy inventions are often used to clean up during diaper changes, to sanitize surfaces in the home or workplace, or even to use in place of toilet paper for extra cleanliness. And with concerns over COVID-19, the demand for these wipes has only increased.
Though they can be convenient for you, wet wipes are quite problematic for the planet, no matter how they end up there.
The synthetic fibers that make up wet wipes prevent them from being compostable or recyclable. So, after a single use, we toss them out and they head to the landfill. There, they are out of sight for most, but certainly should not be out of mind. Due to those pesky synthetic fibers, the wipes do not break down and represent a hefty proportion of non-biodegradable waste in landfills.
Regrettably, our trash doesn’t always make it to the garbage can. On-the-go wet wipe users often end up tossing their used wipes into the environment. A 2014 Marine Conservation Society beach cleanup discovered a 50% increase in wet wipes littering U.K. beaches since the preceding year. And we have seen an uptick of this unfortunate practice during the coronavirus pandemic. Wet wipes that find their way into the oceans can be fatal for marine animals, commonly settling in their stomachs and leading to starvation. These handy wipes are quickly becoming a leading environmental pollutant.
Some wet wipes are advertised as “flushable,” making them a convenient toilet paper replacement for those who wish to feel exceedingly squeaky clean. However, the idea that wet wipes can be flushed down the toilet has been contested by wastewater officials everywhere. It turns out, these wipes do not disintegrate in the same way toilet paper does and can form congealed masses that block drains and clog sewer systems, costing city governments millions of dollars and potentially contaminating our oceans and beaches.
Plus! Not So Healthy
In addition to negatively impacting the environment, wet wipes can be detrimental to human health. Wet wipes contain a mixture of chemicals to enhance their cleaning abilities. These chemicals can be toxic and harmful to those who come in contact with them. Many wipe brands contain certain fragrances, preservatives, and cleaning agents that irritate the skin, causing painful rashes and inflammations. Because wet wipes are often used in direct contact with skin, this is a nasty combination.
The Costs of Convenience
This era’s increasing obsession with convenience comes with a significant environmental cost that’s exemplified by the negative impacts of these disposable wipes.
The sustainable choice is to move away from convenient disposables and consider reuse. There are many excellent alternatives to wet wipes, including good old-fashioned washcloths. I also suggest investing in paperless towels or even making your own. Learn about DIY “unpaper” towels and find out where to buy similar eco-friendly products.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Originally published on November 8, 2016, this article was updated in August 2020.