In the UK, a government minister is calling for a new law to ban wet wipes that contain plastic. Labour minister, Fleur Anderson says 90% of the 11 billion wet wipes that were used in the UK per year contains a form of plastic that turns into microplastics when broken down, causing environmental damage and polluting marine environments.
In 2019, 23 000 wipes were counted and removed from a single stretch of the Thames River foreshore in just two hours.
In addition to calling for a ban on wet wipes that contain plastic, Anderson is also calling for wet wipe manufacturers to switch to non-plastic alternatives and for UK retailers to be held to account for incorrectly labelling their wipe products ‘fine to flush’.
In South Africa, one forward-looking wipe manufacturer has already pre-empted this issue. Sani-touch, manufacturers of the popular Saniwipes trolley and hand sanitising wipes, recently announced a collaboration with Africa’s largest retailer, the Shoprite Group, to recycle wipes from its 1 328 supermarkets nationwide.
Sani-touch is the manufacturers of the very first trolley wipes to the South African market in 2006.
Annette Devenish, Sani-touch marketing director, explains that around the world the consumer wipe market is booming, primarily driven by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We identified the issue of plastic in wipes some time ago and recognised that the pandemic would intensify the situation which is why we have been working on a solution,” she says.
Wipes have traditionally been manufactured from synthetic fibres and are not easily compostable or recyclable. Sani-touch’s trolley wipes have always been manufactured using either biodegradable wet strength paper or locally produced 100% recyclable polypropylene.
“A growing concern with the increased demand for trolley wipes is whether our recyclable polypropylene wipes are actually being recycled,” she says.
Used Sani-touch trolley wipes are safe to handle once they have dried due to their unique soap and disinfectant solution, and the company ran a pilot study with recyclers in Cape Town and Johannesburg to recycle its wipes and investigate the establishment of a circular economy for the wipes.
“We quickly realised that waste recyclers want products that are guaranteed to contain 100% polypropylene as these are easy to recycle. The challenge, however, was to ensure that other brands of wipes are not discarded with Sani-touch’s Saniwipes as there is no knowing what they consist of.”
Sani-touch’s solution has been to convert all of its recyclable wipes to an easily identifiable green colour in order to distinguish them from those of competitors. It also converted the Saniwipe bucket, including the catches and even the stickers on the buckets, to 100% polypropylene so that they too can be recycled. Wipe dispenser stands have been redesigned with smaller waste bin openings to discourage the disposal of any other material other than the wipes themselves.
The Shoprite Group, which includes 1 328 Shoprite and Checkers supermarkets nationwide, is partnering with Sani-touch on its sustainability journey ensuring that used Saniwipes are sent for recycling rather than being thrown away and ending up in landfills.
Recycling companies have been appointed to recycle the material into pallets which are then returned to Infection Protection Products for use in their factories and warehouses, replacing traditional wooden pallets, in the process creating a circular economy.
“Ultimately, this is about creating demand for upcycled products such as the plastic pallets in order to ensure a circular economy. An added benefit is that by growing the circular economy we’re also creating jobs,” says Devenish, adding that the system works because the used wipes are collected at scale and are recyclable.
Recycling consumer wipes is not as straightforward, which is why different wipes need to be classified in different ways. “Baby wipes, for example, need to be 100% biodegradable given that it’s not possible to collect them for recycling. Similarly, food and consumer wipes should ideally be compostable.”
The Shoprite Group’s Sustainability Manager Sanjeev Raghubir says, “With small changes to the way we do things we can ensure that single-use products such as wipes don’t only offer excellent infection protection but can also be environmentally neutral.”