On 22 April 2024, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ('Defra') announced that the UK Government will introduce new legislative measures that expressly ban the sale and supply of wet wipes containing plastic in the UK. This announcement follows a wide-ranging public consultation from October 2023 and adds to a growing body of regulation intended to combat the detrimental environmental effects caused by plastic waste.

Legislative objective

According to Defra, wet wipes containing plastic are a pollutant. Once they enter our waterways, they accumulate biological and chemical pollutants, increasing the risk of harm to the animals and humans who encounter them. The new measures are therefore intended to reduce plastic and microplastic pollution and consequently mitigate the volume of environmental pollutants from entering the ecosystem.

Legislative ban

What is a wet wipe containing plastic?

Under the new regulations 'wet wipes' will be defined as "a non-woven piece of fabric which has been soaked and stored in liquid and which is not designed or intended to be re-used, including but not limited to baby wipes, cosmetic wipes, moist toilet tissues, personal hygiene wipes and wipe-based cleaning products.”

The definition of 'plastic' mirrors the legislative position under UK REACH[1] as: "a material consisting of polymer to which additives or other substances may have been added, and which can function as a main structural component of final products, with the exception of natural polymers that have not been chemically modified".

Notably, following the UK REACH definition, the ban will apply to plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable or compostable (for example polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and polylactic acid (PLA)) due to Defra considering there to be a lack of evidence that wet wipes containing such plastics consistently break down.


[1] Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), as amended by The REACH etc. (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (SI 2019/758), The REACH etc. (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2019 (SI 2019/858), and The REACH etc. (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) (No. 3) Regulations 2019

  • The UK reach

    The UK REACH was brought into UK law on 1 January 2021 replicating much of the EU REACH regime following the end of the Brexit transition period. UK REACH regulates chemicals placed on the market in Great Britain (the EU REACH continues to be applicable in Northern Ireland and to those exporting products to the EU) and aims to protect human health and the environment from the use of chemicals and hold those who place chemicals on the market responsible.

    The meaning of plastic in Wales shall follow the existing definition under the Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Wales) Act 2023 which is based on the UK REACH definition.

Scope of the ban

The legislation will ban the supply and sale of wet wipes containing plastic in the UK. However, it should be noted that manufacturing activities are not impacted. Defra has acknowledged that many manufacturers do not exclusively supply wet wipes to the UK and will be required to comply with regulations which are applicable in other nations. Therefore, UK manufacturers that export wet wipes containing plastic can continue to do so. However, sales to UK customers will be prohibited unless the manufacturer meets one of the exemptions noted below (or they identify a plastic-free alternative). Likewise any non-UK manufacturers will also be prevented from exporting wet wipes containing plastic to UK customers unless the product meets one of the below listed regulatory exemptions:

Exemptions

  • Industrial: The sale and supply of wet wipes containing plastic will continue to be permitted in the case that alternative options are unsuitable or unavailable for industrial purposes, such as in hospitals or food production sites.
  • Medical - onwards sale by registered pharmacies: Wet wipes containing plastic are not permitted to be sold onto consumers other than by registered pharmacies to those who specifically request and require wet wipes containing plastic for medical purposes (akin to the exemption under legislation passed in relation to plastic straws).

In its response, Defra has said that full details of the exemptions will be included in the regulations and set out in relevant guidance. The requirement for and range of exemptions will also continue to be reviewed.

Time frames

It is anticipated that legislation will be in place in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by the end of 2024. Each separate piece of legislation passed will provide for an 18-month transition period to enable businesses to adapt their product lines or business practices in order to comply with the ban. In addition, the 18-month transition period is also hoped to prevent excess stock being incinerated or landfilled.

Wider UK environmental strategy

The proposed ban is part of the UK Government's wider policy in relation to the use of single-use plastics following the publication of its 'A Green Future: Our 25 year plan to improve the environment' in 2018. A body of legislation has been passed and announced in the UK since 2018 which limits the manufacture and supply of products containing single-use plastics:

  • January 2018 - ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads
  • June 2018 – ban on the sale of products containing microbeads
  • October 2020 – ban on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England
  • June 2022 – ban on the manufacture and supply single-use plastic cutlery, drink stirrers, plates, and polystyrene cups and food containers, and an offence to supply single-use plastic straws and balloon sticks in Scotland
  • October 2023 - ban on single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers in England
  • October 2023 – ban and introduction of an offence to supply or offer to supply plastic plates, cutlery, polystyrene cups and takeaway food containers, drink stirrers, balloon sticks and drinking straws in Wales
  • January 2024 - announcement of future ban of single-use vapes in Scotland, England, and Wales
  • April 2024 – announcement of future ban of wet wipes containing plastic
  • May 2024 – announcement of future ban of single-use vapes in Northern Ireland

Some critics have commented that this piecemeal approach does not have the impact needed in order to reduce the use of single use plastic. However, it has also been argued that the current approach is required for public consultations to be considered and avoidable single use plastics and alternatives to be identified.

Industry impact

Defra has cited that the responses to the October 2023 gave an overwhelming endorsement of legislative action with 95% of respondents in support of a proposed ban. However, for balance it should be noted that 70% of manufacturers who responded either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposal to ban manufacture citing unnecessary loss in revenue and jobs. The consultation also revealed that only 12% of manufacturers currently produce plastic free wet wipes. This is a concerning statistic and suggests that the industry impact to transition to non-plastic materials will be significant.

It is important to emphasise that a number of manufacturers already produce plastic-free wet wipes. Also, some major retailers have already stopped selling wet wipes containing plastic in their stores. As such, consumers can already make the decision to purchase plastic free wet wipes. McCormack Innovation is a Scottish headquartered company that holds multiple patents for its plastic free wet-wipe technology as well as benefitting from the 'fine to flush' quality standard accreditation. According to McComack's founder and chief executive Brian McCormack:

"the new rules reflect a swelling tide of legislative action and regulatory enforcement that is pushing businesses towards more environmentally neutral manufacturing practices. These new rules will force certain businesses to examine their manufacturing processes as well as interrogating the composition of raw materials. In the short to medium term we can expect that businesses manufacturing wet wipes containing plastic will need to look to acquire or in-licence plastic free materials and technology in order to continue to supply and sell into the UK market."

Comment

Due to Defra's consultation being heavily publicised in October 2023, the ban will not necessarily come as a surprise to the public and businesses. The UK's 25 year environment plan published in 2018 included a commitment by the government to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Defra's announcement also follows in the wake of campaigns from a number of environmental and waterway protection groups calling for a ban of wet wipes containing plastic specifically. Some critics have said that a ban becoming effective in 2026 following the transition period comes too late. However, with strong support from the public and the retailers Aldi and Boots having already pulled plastic wet wipes from their shelves, the announcement of the ban now aligns with public perception and large retailers' green policies.

Those businesses that currently manufacture, supply, or sell wet wipes containing plastic will now have to decide how they will adapt during the transition period in order to comply with the ban. The availability and cost of non-plastic alternative materials will play a large part in relation to the feasibility of such businesses making the switch as well as any continuing demand for wet wipes containing plastic under the exemptions.

Defra's consultation noted that wet wipes that do not contain plastic are currently available on the market including for medical and clinical purposes. Indeed, certain innovative businesses have already brought to market viable 'fine to flush' plastic alternatives' and so it is entirely possible that the proposed legislative exemptions will not be required in the future and there could be a total wipe out of wet wipes containing plastic.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this blog in more detail please get in touch with Grant Strachan or your usual Brodies contact.

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