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Do flushed biodegradable wet wipes really degrade?

Allison, Thomas, Ward, Benjamin D. ORCID:, Harbottle, Michael ORCID: and Durance, Isabelle ORCID: 2023. Do flushed biodegradable wet wipes really degrade? Science of the Total Environment 894 , 164912. 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.164912

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Consumer wet wipes sold as biodegradable and flushable have tripled in market size in the last decade (>$3 billion in 2022), spurred by concerns over their potential harmful impact. Whilst predominantly composed of cellulosic fibres such as cotton, rayon, or wood pulp, these have been found to persist in sewers and in the environment in near equal abundance to their ‘synthetic’ counterparts. This questions whether flushed biodegradable wet wipes really degrade. Working from first principles, we therefore explore the physicochemical composition, environmental interactions, and degradation processes throughout the entire life cycle of cellulosic wet wipe fibres, from production to environmental fate, to understand their degradation behaviour in wastewater and freshwater systems. The results highlight that >50 % of biodegradable and flushable wipes are commonly manufactured with both biological biodegradable cellulose-based fibres and low-degradable synthetic fibres, and that they contain various property-enhancing chemical additives that can limit degradation. Whilst cellulose fibres in wet wipes are highly prone to physical fragmentation, their molecular degradation is difficult within the environment. This is due to the physicochemical manufacturing properties of wet wipes and the usually inadequate ambient conditions for its breakdown, creating persistent and possibly biologically harmful microfibres. We conclude that currently, most flushed biodegradable wet wipes do not really degrade, and that more empirical investigations are needed on their in-situ degradation behaviour and the environmental and manufacturing processes that may influence this breakdown. In doing so, full life cycle approaches to wet wipes should be adopted, considering their manufacturing properties, consumer disposal behaviour, and environmental implications.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Biosciences
Publisher: Elsevier
ISSN: 0048-9697
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 7 September 2023
Date of Acceptance: 13 June 2023
Last Modified: 18 Jul 2024 16:23

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