Wet wipes: The environmental damage Kiwis are being 'misled' about

It's a hidden plastic that most Kiwis use without realising, to clean everything from babies to bathrooms.

But are consumers being misled about the environmental damage wet wipes cause?

A Nelson supermarket owner thinks we are, and is now standing up to global wet wipe giants.

Wet wipes constantly flow through a Watercare waste treatment plant in Auckland - almost one every second.

Watercare head of sustainability Chris Thurston says it's an astronomical amount of wipes.

"It's about 700,000kg of wet wipes, about 53 million individual wet wipes every year."

And Nelson City Councillor Matt Lawrey, who's been an ardent campaigner on the downside of wet wipes, thinks Kiwis would be shocked to learn what's in them.

"New Zealanders are saying no to plastic in lots of ways. If they don't know plastic is in something they can't say no to it," he says.

Wet wipes typically contain plastic, but because wipe manufacturers aren't required to list the ingredients on the packet, consumers don't always know what they're buying.

The Food and Grocery Council says companies have been working to improve their labelling.

"So at all times, make sure you've read the label and you're not flushing goods that are clearly marked not flushable," CEO Katherine Rich says.

But Lawrey says it's not clear enough, and Fresh Choice owner Mark A'Court agrees.

"They're not really telling the true story about what you should and shouldn't be doing with these."

He sells thousands of wet wipes at his Nelson supermarket every day. Customers like them, so he'll keep selling them.

But he's now warning shoppers about the damage they can cause.

One customer says they'd been flushing them before, but will no longer do that.

There's hope that an increase in awareness will reduce the number of wipes that end up in water plants.

It's the trouble wet wipes are causing before they arrive at Watercare facilities that's the real issue - they cause major blockages in the pipes and create fatbergs.

They're a congealed mass of grease and wet wipes that costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

Watercare drainage servicer Richard Barby says fatbergs are involved in "almost every blockage" they have - and the problem is getting worse.

"Blockages overflow into our stormwater system, into our rivers and into the sea, and the rivers within the city are often more polluted than rivers coming off a farm because of all of the overflows," Barby says.

And because the environmental impacts are so serious, they don't even want the so-called 'flushable' wipes to be flushed.

Consumer New Zealand recently tested a popular flushable brand to show why.

"We found it was 80 percent rayon and 17 percent polyester. And of course, polyester is plastic and it's not going to biodegrade anytime soon," Sue Chetwin from Consumer NZ says.

The wet wipes then turn into a concrete-like block. It shows the rock-hard reality of the issue - much like the plastic causing it in the first place.