The government has reannounced plans to ban plastic wet wipes that clog up Britain’s sewers, amid increasing pressure to tackle water pollution.
The government said it will launch a public consultation on the measure, building on a pledge from major retailers like Boots and Tesco who have vowed to stop selling the products.
The measure is part of a wider plan to clean up and improve the UK’s water quality, including tougher enforcement for those who pollute.
However, opposition MPs have accused the government of reheating failed measures "that give the green light to sewage dumping". The government has previously pledged to crack down on wet wipes, first in 2018 and again in 2021.
Wet wipes flushed down toilets cause 93% of sewer blockages and cost around £100m a year to clear up, according to Water UK.
While there are some biodegradable options on the shelves, most products contain plastics which do not break down – causing them to clog up pipes over time.
In its Plan for Water published on Monday night, the government said it wants to ban these subject to a public consultation, and will work with industry to make sure environmentally friendly alternatives are available.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told the BBC the consultation is "a legal requirement to make sure that we can go ahead with any ban" and the proposal "is to ban plastic from wet wipes".
But the announcement was criticised by the Lib Dems, who also released data last night showing that water companies dumped sewage on English Blue Flag beaches more than 1,500 times in 2022.
Blue Flag status is supposed to indicate clean coastline and water.
The party’s environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: "Yet again the Conservative government is taking the public for fools by re-announcing a wet wipe policy from five years ago. This is a complete farce."
The wet wipes plan is one of a series of measures the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said will improve England’s water quality.
Other proposals in the Plan for Water include restrictions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in firefighting foam, textiles, cleaning products, paints and varnishes.
The government also wants to encourage water companies to install more smart meters in households to reduce water demand and give farmers £34m to improve pollution from slurry.
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Ms Coffey laid out her department’s plans in a speech today at the London Wetland Centre.
She has already said that water companies could face unlimited penalties for dumping sewage – following calls for her to resign over what opposition MPs have called a "national scandal".
New figures showed water companies took no action to reduce pollution despite discharges falling by 19% in 2022.
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Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, welcomed the ambition but said it was "unclear how all of the initiatives will fit together, while the health of our waters continues to deteriorate.
"Crucially, this plan must help to significantly reduce pollution from agriculture, as well as that caused by the water industry," he said.
Responding to the Plan for Water, Labour’s shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: "This announcement is nothing more than a shuffling of the deck chairs and a reheating of old, failed measures that simply give the green light for sewage dumping to continue for decades to come.
"This is the third sham of a Tory water plan since the summer. There’s nothing in it that tells us how, if or when they will end the Tory sewage scandal."
Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay said: "After years of burying their heads, ministers have finally surfaced to tackle the scourge of sewage and pollution in our waterways and along our coasts.
"It’s clear the Conservatives can also smell a local election in the air and are only acting in response to public pressure.
"The actions are too little too late, and still leave the water industry in private hands able to profit from failure."
© Sky News 2023