If they are outlawed, shoppers will no longer be able to buy the wipes, which are mostly made of polyester and contain millions of microfibres impregnated with chemicals.
Tens of thousands of wet wipes are sold in Britain each year, and despite public awareness campaigns, many are still flushed into lavatories, where they end up clogging mains sewers, and go on to kill fish in rivers and other marine life as the fibres are released.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “As part of our 25-year environment plan, we have pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, and that includes single-use products like wet wipes.
“We are continuing to work with manufacturers and retailers of wet wipes to make sure labelling on packaging is clear and people know how to dispose of them properly – and we support the industry’s efforts to make their customers aware of this important issue.”
She declined to say whether this meant it would become illegal to buy or sell wet wipes or when the measure would begin.
Defra said it is still considering new taxes to reduce the amount of single-use plastics wasted.
Wet wipes, which contain plastic, slowly break down into microplastics that are then ingested by marine life, with deadly consequences.
Mr Gove, the environment secretary, has decided to clamp down after a group that cleans up rivers last week revealed that wet wipes were changing the shapes of river beds.
Thames21 found more than 5,000 of them alongside the Thames in an area half the size of a tennis court.
Members retrieved 5,453 wet wipes last month in an area in west London – an increase of nearly 1,000 on last year’s total. They said similar accumulations were happening in rivers nationwide.
It also follows complaints from water and sewage companies and the Environment Agency. In December, Water UK, which represents water and sewerage companies, announced that the biggest ever in-depth investigation of sewer blockages found wet wipes being flushed down toilets were the greatest culprit.
It said sewer blockages added £100m to water bills each year.
Wet wipes also contribute to giant “fatbergs”, giant congealed lumps of fat and rubbish in sewer systems – of which there are believed to be at least 12 under just London now.
In an attempt to stem the tide of damage caused by plastic, the UK has already:
- banned microbeads, which kill marine life
- introduced a 5p plastic bag charge
- signalled a ban on the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds
- and announced a new deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles.