Plastic cotton bud stems disposed of into sewage systems are polluting inland waterways and the marine environment worldwide.


Despite having been recognised as a problem for at least 20 years, they are a continuing pollution issue. Cotton bud stems make up more than 50% of the sewage related debris recorded in surveys of UK beaches in recent years, with the highest figures to be found on Scottish beaches.

As a component of plastic marine litter, plastic cotton buds are aesthetically undesirable on recreational beaches, and pose a health threat both to the public and to marine life due to their chemical composition and physical structure.  They have specifically been found in the digestive systems of seabirds and turtles, and in some cases have been directly responsible for the death of the animal involved, through internal damage.

Efforts to change consumer behaviour leading to this situation (i.e. people flushing cotton buds down the toilet) have not had long-term success, and the extensive investment programmes in the sewage systems have not addressed this issue.  Another relatively simple solution is to replace the plastic sticks with alternative materials which are biodegradable, such as paper (from FSC certified sources if possible).

The Cotton Bud Project is working towards a long term solution to this issue through dialogue with manufacturers and retailers of plastic cotton buds, and can provide information on which retailers stock biodegradable ones.

© Phillippa Willitts