I feel guilty using wet wipes... but not very

How people changed babies' nappies before wet wipes I dread to think

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It was with a guilty feeling that I read of the harm caused by wet wipes. The Marine Conservation Society reports a 50 per cent increase over the past year in the number found on our beaches; and wet wipes are “causing havoc in the sewers of Kent”, according to Southern Water.

I am a wet-wipe user. But I would seek mitigation by saying I only got into them because I changed my sons’ nappies so often. How people “changed” babies before wet wipes I dread to think, but I doubt I would have involved myself in the process very much.

Wet wipes, I’m afraid, displace other, more environmentally friendly, but less convenient products. One of these is toilet paper. This use is not usually proclaimed on the packets, but phrases such as “leaving you feeling clean and fresh” point the way.

On the Continent, they have bidets. In the Middle East, toilets are often equipped with a kind of hose. (In the gents’ at Dubai airport, I discovered one of these, whereupon what might have been a scene from a Mr Bean film ensued.) In Britain, we have toilet paper, or – very often in public lavatories – not. So you can see where the wet wipe comes in.

They also displace kitchen cloths. A scientist once told me that the typical kitchen cloth contains 30 trillion colonies of bacteria. His point was that in order to clean with a kitchen cloth, you have to first clean the kitchen cloth. He himself soaked his kitchen cloths in bleach twice a week, thereby probably reducing the number of bacteria colonies to a more reasonable figure of, say, 10 trillion. But I never use bleach. The warnings on the labels are too severe, the basic message seeming to be “Do not, on any account, use this product.”

Wet wipes also displace spit. When my mother wanted to clean my face, she would spit (genteelly, of course) on the corner of her handkerchief, which she would then apply to my chocolate-y lips. I counted it an honour to be so dealt with, but saliva is very out of fashion today. (Over the past four years, every London borough has acquired the power to fine people for spitting in public.)

In addition, wet wipes displace that increasingly rare conjunction of a cake of soap and a sink. A man who worked for a train company once told me that cakes of soap were discontinued in train WCs because people stole them. So liquid soap was introduced. But another man who worked for a train company told me that people steal liquid soap as well, by decanting it into bottles. That must be why the liquid soap canisters are always empty… or they contain just enough soap to make my hands greasy, whereupon I grope for the sensor that supposedly releases a dribble of water, only to discover a depressing aridity.

It’s a shame that wet wipes are undermining civilisation in the long term, because they’re certainly promoting it in the short term.