Marine litter and microplastics

The United Nations Environmental Programme defines marine litter as, “any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment.”

It can consist of items that have been:

  • deliberately discarded into the sea or rivers or on beaches
  • brought indirectly to the sea with rivers, sewage, storm water or winds
  • or accidentally lost, including material lost at sea in bad weather

Sources are multiple and it leads to a wide range of environmental, economic, safety, health and cultural impacts. The slow rate of degradation of most items, mainly plastics, together with the continuously growing quantity disposed, is leading to a gradual increase in marine litter found at sea and on the shores.

A report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that there will be an equal amount of microplastics in the oceans compared to fish by 2050.  To better understand where plastics come from in the Marine Environment, consult the study and infographics  done by Eunomia. Marine litter is a serious concern for the nonwovens industry. Beside partnering  with associations such as PlasticsEurope to address problems and concerned raised , EDANA and its member companies, provide clear and correct information about marine litter and microplastics, and the industry’s actions to ensure that for instance  wipes are disposed of correctly.

What are microplastics ?

According to ECHA (the European Chemical Agency) the working definition used for microplastics is: 

Microplastics means a material consisting of solid polymercontaining particles, to which additives or other substances may have been added, and where ≥ 1% w/w of particles have (i) all dimensions 1nm ≤ x ≤ 5mm, or (ii), for fibres, a length of 3nm ≤ x ≤ 15mm and length to diameter ratio of >3 (date : 30 September 2019, the definition is subject to change) 

As there is currently no international accepted definition, this working definition is subject to change.

Microplastics can be:

  • An intentionally added ingredient within a product (e.g. micro-beads in cosmetics) or designed in a way that they could be released during their life cycle (e.g. agricultural use)
  •  Generated from the fragmentation or degradation of larger plastic waste or
  •  Created during the life cycle of a product (e.g. clothing) through wear and tear or emitted through accidental spills (e.g. polymer pellets)


For more information please consult the Eunomia report on Measuring the Impacts of Microplastics and  UNEP report on Microplastic Pollution.

Wipes and marine litter

Although marine litter is mainly made up of other items, wipes that are improperly disposed i.e. non-flushable wipes in the toilet or thrown into the environment, can make their way to our seas and oceans.

The number of wipes found on beaches and in the marine environment depends how many wipes that are used and then incorrectly flushed. In some cases, wipes have been visible on beaches, as non-flushable wipes (like baby wipes, cosmetic or facial wipes, and household cleaning wipes) can accumulate in local sewage systems, and be flushed out all at once in case of excessive rainfall or flooding.

While local water company makes every effort to remove these wipes, consumers can make the biggest difference by disposing of any wipe not designed to be compatible with the sewer network into a rubbish bin. To find out which wipe belongs in the bin, they can look for the ‘Do not Flush’ symbol (below) on your pack.

In most cases it isn’t. The sewer network is essential to our public health and we shouldn’t consider it as an alternative bin. However, some wipes, especially those contaminated with blood, urine or faeces are best disposed of via the toilet, but only if the wipe has been designed to be flushed, which means that it is intended to break down in water.

The majority of wipes you can find at your local store are generally not designed to be flushed.

In order to do the job they are designed for, most wipes must keep their shape and strength, even when wet - this is why they are typically made of fibres that make them stronger than toilet paper. This also means that most wipes (such as baby, facial or cleaning wipes) do not disperse like toilet paper and therefore shouldn’t be flushed.


Look for the ‘Do not Flush’ symbol on your pack to see if the wipe should be disposed of in the rubbish bin. If you have any doubts, it’s best to dispose of the wipe into a bin.

In order to reduce the presence of marine litter, action is being undertaken by Governments, and voluntary industry initiatives, but we also need a change in behaviour from the public.

For many years now, industry has taken action to ensure that wipes are clearly labelled with a ‘Do not Flush’ symbol  to make it clear that the wipes must be disposed together with other household waste, in a bag or a bin.

In addition to labelling, our industry has developed a series of standardised tests to assess which wipes are compatible with the sewer network. A set of guidelines, which outlines the tests and other activities by the industry is available free-of-charge here, and ensures that wipes which pass these tests effectively disperse in water, and can be safely flushed. The wipes industry continues to evolve and update these tests, both to ensure the highest level of public hygiene and safety, and to ensure that the views of wastewater operators are taken into consideration.


In addition to many beach and ocean clean-up initiatives at local and national level, the only effective way to reduce marine litter is to prevent littering and ensure that all waste is properly disposed and collected.

Yes. While wipes do not pose any risk of entanglement to marine species, like any other item not designed to be in our seas and oceans, many wipes contain materials that do not readily break down and can therefore indirectly impact marine life and ecosystems.

Yes and no. While both refer to the presence of items not designed to be present in our seas and oceans, marine litter refers to rubbish or trash that is found in the wrong place (such as cigarette butts, food wrappings, and other rubbish), while microplastics are small plastic particles that can come from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. These particles may end up in the food chain.

While the use of synthetic fibres in some wipes could eventually degrade to smaller sizes, single-use wipes are just that, and don’t allow for any smaller parts of the fibre to travel into the water stream as a result of laundering.

Yes, however, like the INDA/EDANA test methods, they are also voluntary. EDANA and INDA, our partner association in the USA continue to update both the test methods, and the labelling guidelines, to reflect current manufacturing technologies, and the views of experts from the water and wipes industries. The current (third) edition of these guidelines is available free-of-charge here.

Work is currently underway on the 4th edition of these guidelines and test methods. To receive any future updates about this topic, please contact Marines Lagemaat.

There is also a project underway from the International Standards Organisation (ISO), with participants from across the world, and includes experts from water companies, wipes manufacturers, and technical experts. Information about this project, will be published upon its completion.

Logo do not flush