Fine to Flush: A journey towards cleaner sewers and a greener environment

Published on: 01 Nov 2023

In this article, we look back over the last four years since the development of the award-winning Fine to Flush scheme, including its transformational impact on sewer system operators, the wet wipe industry, and the natural environment.

Pre-2019, millions of pounds were spent annually in the UK (United Kingdom) on pollution events due to sewer blockages, sewer flooding and pump failures – a cost which has inevitably been passed on to the consumer. Research carried out in 2017 (Drinkwater & Moy) showed that 93% of these blockages were caused by improper disposal of billions of plastic-containing, non-flushable wet wipes, costing an estimated £100 million to clear them.

Not only were pre-2019 wet wipes the major cause of blockages and huge expense, but they also contained plastics, specifically polyester fibres such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP).

These plastics can take 100+ years to decompose in sewers and landfill and on beaches and riverbeds, as well as releasing microplastics into the wider environment during their journey through the sewerage system.

In 2019, there was no clear policy solution to solve the damaging wet wipe problem. However, together with Water UK, WRc (Water Research Centre), who has been at the forefront of ‘flushability’ research for several years, created the Fine to Flush standard – or Water Industry Specification 4-02-06 – the only standard in the UK for ‘flushable’ products.

Fine to Flush is a rigorous seven-step testing methodology developed by WRc. The tests accurately mimic the forces found in the flows of a sewer to ensure products disintegrate sufficiently in an agreed travel time. Products that meet this standard contain no plastic and degrade in the same was as toilet paper. In addition, the wipe must travel through the system without snagging and causing blockages through the formation of fat, oil and grease (FOG) traps.

F2F adopted by manufacturers and retailers

Manufacturers and retailers of wet wipes were the natural target in the campaign to reduce wet wipe-induced blockages through the F2F scheme. Over the following four years, over 140 F2F certifications were awarded to wet wipe manufacturers and retailers retailing on the UK market, including Kimberley-Clark, Aldi, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Asda and Waitrose. That amounts to billions of wipes that have been safely flushed and do not contain plastic.

In 2021, the success of the F2F scheme was recognised by the Water & Wastewater Treatment (WWT) Water Industry Awards for 2021’s "Outstanding Contribution to Environmental Improvement.”

Tesco Group Quality Director Sarah Bradbury commented in 2022: “There is no need for wet wipes to contain plastic, so from now on we will no longer stock them if they do.” In addition to being plastic-free, Tesco’s moist toilet tissue wipes were certified and labelled as ‘Fine to Flush’ and non-flushable wipes clearly labelled as ‘Do Not Flush’.

Lessons from industry certification schemes

A certification scheme allows businesses whose products qualify for certification to demonstrate that their product is compliant with an industry standard. Once an accredited certification body has assessed and approved an organisation, it will issue them with a certificate, and a seal or mark relevant to that scheme that can then be added to the organisation’s product or offering.

The Fine to Flush logo provided consumers with clear labelling about the products that they can flush, as against those that remain on the market that are still non-flushable. Previously, the retail landscape was confusing, with many products claiming to be flushable when they were not. The F2F standard gave consumers the information they needed – in an easy-to-recognise logo – to make a quick yet informed decision about which product to buy.

Impact and future outlook

The success of the F2F scheme reflects the positive collaboration of manufacturers, retailers, research and certification bodies, campaigners, and the government in their joint aim to reduce plastic pollution, help water companies lower the rate and severity of sewer blockages, and cut the real and environmental cost of cleaning up after major pollution events.

The reduction of wet wipes in sewers due to Fine to Flush has reduced the misuse of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). These specialist valves are designed to release diluted sewage from sewerage works after heavy rainfall events. Prior to F2F, the diluted sewage also contained huge quantities of wet wipes which were discharged directly into the natural environment.

Fine to Flush has successfully catapulted wet wipe plastic composition and their misuse into the national news and consumer psyche, appearing in a range of publications and news outlets from Good Housekeeping to the Daily Mail and the Reading Chronicle to the BBC.

On 29 August 2023, Water UK notified WRc of their decision to withdraw the Fine to Flush certification mark and end the certification programme on 29th February 2024. The move is a result of the Government’s decision to shift the general public’s choice of wet wipe disposal to a ‘bin it’ behaviour for all types of wipes.

WRc supports all campaigns that aim to reduce plastic pollution and increase awareness of the damage that wet wipes and fatbergs cause in our water networks and wider environment. We believe our Fine to Flush scheme created a wave of public awareness about the detrimental aspects of wet wipes and helped forge a positive behavioural change concerning their disposal.

The company will continue to carry out flushability testing to allow wipe retailers and manufacturers’ customers to demonstrate that their products - although no longer labelled as ‘flushable’ - will disintegrate in the sewer or the environment and not cause a blockage if flushed. Critically, we also believe it is essential to continue providing this service for moist toilet tissue users who may feel a stigma associated with binning a wipe or who are unable to do so in a safe and secure way.

WRc’s design test capability continues apace, with manufacturers testing their products – not just wet wipes, but also alternative cosmetic and personal products – for bio-disintegration and biodegradability. Our manufacturing clients recognise the importance of this service in the development of products that are affiliated with the circular economy, ultimately resulting in less waste to landfill.

2023-11-01 10:58:00