Covid-19 spread threat through poor discarding of wet wipes

Published by Kayle Crosson on

March 26th, 2020

The novel coronavirus could spread to our recreational waters due to the improper disposal of wet wipes, a marine conservation group has warned. 

Coastwatch issued the warning this week as many use wet wipes as a way to keep infection at bay as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease Covid-19 continues its rapid spread across the globe. 

The problem, Coastwatch says, is not in the use of wet wipes but their improper disposal when flushed down the toilet rather than disposed of properly in waste bins with lids. 

The issue is a long term problem, with Coastwatch estimating that roughly 90 per cent of sewage overflow is linked to wet wipe disposal. According to Irish Water, flushing wet wipes is one of the leading causes of blocked pipes in Ireland as they do not disintegrate when flushed.

Due to their heightened use during the coronavirus outbreak, treatment plants and septic tanks might not be able to cope and could spread the virus into shellfish and recreational waters, the group warns.

The virus can be found in the excrement of carriers, so in cases of overflow in treatment centres, the virus itself could spread and infect those managing our sewage systems. 

Emergency legislation 

Toilet paper, soap and water work very well on most occasions and Coastwatch advises that where these are neither available or suitable and disinfectant wipes are the only option, people should be “be extra careful to dispose of used wipes in the waste bin, not the recycling bin and not the toilet”. 

One of the contributing factors, according to Coastwatch, is improper labelling as many new wet wipe packages are labelled as “flushable”. 

When compared to toilet paper, the organisation said, the flushable wipes “flush alright, but then risk causing blockage problems just like their non-flushable cousins”. 

Coastwatch is calling for “emergency labelling legislation” to address the issue and to avoid further overflow. “Given the urgency, an eight day period to place stickers on stock should suffice,” the group said.

Once the outbreak has passed, the group is calling for a “well-planned, wider consumer campaign” on the use of wet wipes due to their single use nature and the disposal issues they pose. 

In order to curb their use, Coastwatch hopes to see either a tax on wet wipes to discourage their use or a ban of toilet wipes which “do not dissolve into pulp as quick as toilet paper”. 

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Kayle Crosson

Kayle is a multimedia journalist focused on climate and environmental issues and contributes to The Irish Times and The Green News.