How Fidra’s Cotton Bud Project helped solve a single-use plastic problem

Cotton Buds, East Lothian Scotland

Cotton Buds, East Lothian Scotland – Fidra

When my colleagues noticed plastic cotton bud sticks washed up on our local beach they didn’t do what many of us would do, tut and try to ignore the litter.  Instead they set up a project to stop the problem at source and rid our beaches of this damaging debris. Today, more and more companies are announcing their intention to ditch single use plastic. The public response to Scottish Government’s consultation on new legislation was overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on plastic stemmed cotton buds.  So, what can we learn from the successes of substituting this single use plastic?

Sticking at it

Since the Cotton Bud Project started in 2013 public awareness of single use plastic has soared, but even before the ‘Blue Planet effect’ some cotton bud producers were already moving away from plastic. Now, with consultations on legislation progressing, it looks like plastic cotton buds may soon be a thing of the past.  This is the culmination of efforts by industry, government, NGOs and my colleagues here at Fidra. As the newest team member, I am keen to learn what made the Cotton Bud Project so successful and apply it to other environmental issues. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

It’s complicated

Identifying the problem is sometimes the (relatively) easy part. Finding the most effective way to solve environmental issues is where it gets interesting.  Unlike issues such as air pollution, plastic cotton bud stems are a problem that is easy see. You can spot the sticks on the beach and in your bathroom. The plastic sticks cause problems to humans (who often don’t like litter) and to wildlife (plastic cotton buds sticks have been found in seabird stomachs making them feel full when they are not, and piercing the intestines of turtles).  Plastic cotton buds on beaches have a common source, your toilet. After flushing, cotton buds in sewage go out to sea, they float and wash up at the beach or end up in animals.  So how do you stop it? Can people be persuaded to stop dropping cotton buds in the toilet? Could sewage works filter out plastic? The problem is easy to see but harder to solve.

Find Facts and Friends

Gathering evidence and speaking to all those involved including retailers, manufacturers, litter pickers and scientists, help solutions become clearer.  Retrofitting a sewage plant to filter out cotton buds is hugely expensive.  Attempts to persuade the public to change how they dispose of cotton buds have failed to make a long-term impact.  Fidra quickly realised the answer was to work with industry to make paper stemmed cotton buds available. That way if cotton buds do end up in the loo, paper stems won’t be as damaging as plastic sticks, though of course we’d still encourage people to bin buds after use.  Getting the evidence about the issue and working with those involved to identify realistic solutions are the first steps.

Engaging industry

When it comes to environmental issues industry is often seen as the problem, but not the solution. However, industry cannot act on what they are unaware of. Proactive engagement with industry is key. Where industry act voluntarily it can mean action is quicker and legislation is not needed to address an issue. For legislation to pass you have to consider industry impact in consulations so it is important to have evidence of industry engagement. Engaging industry also gives you international reach as supply chains are often global.  Once Fidra had the evidence of the problem and practical solutions, conversations started with industry and retailers. Initially this involved identifying a few key companies to work with.

This patient long term engagement led to Johnson & Johnson Ltd becoming the first manufacturer to agree to replace their brand-defining blue plastic cotton bud stems with fully biodegradable papers stemmed cotton buds. Meanwhile, Fidra actively engaged with major UK retailers, and the plastic to paper announcement by Johnson & Johnson in March 2016 coincided with retailer Waitrose making the same commitment. The press reported these changes giving the companies who made this proactive decision positive coverage whilst highlighting the issue. Since 2014 Fidra contacted leading retailers, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons and Boots UK who have all agreed to phase out plastic stemmed cotton buds, replacing them with paper. But some smaller and online retailers still sell plastic stemmed cotton buds. However, the switch by the leading retailers raised awareness around the issue, not only among the public but also with government and decision makers – allowing for a more permanent, and watertight, solution to be put in place.

The personal care product is political

Now that some of the key retailers and manufacturers are on board it is time to make sure every cotton bud produced or used in the UK uses alternatives to plastic sticks.  Legislation now looks like the most effective way to eradicate the plastic cotton bud stick. But legislation needs public support, industry acceptance and political will. The striking images of plastic pollution Blue Planet 2 brought us stirred this drive to change.  Along with a solid evidence base and examples of industry engagement, governments now have the remit to consider legislation.  The Scottish Government consultation on their proposed Bill was supported by a staggering 99.4% of respondents.  The UK Government announced in April 2018 that it also intended to ban plastic stemmed cotton buds along with other single-use plastic.

Change is possible

Our Cotton Bud Project aims to end one source of plastic pollution and shine a light on other single-use plastic.  We weren’t the first nor the last organisation to address the cotton bud issue, but we know our inclusive approach certainly helped find and secure a solution. It took years and there were set-backs. Emails we sent to companies never received a reply and other countries  overturned their plastic cotton bud bans. But we had unexpected boosts, like the media covering market leaders making changes, and interest in the issue blossoming after Blue Planet 2. The Cotton Bud Project started because my colleagues saw huge numbers of plastic stems on the beach and decided to do something about it; the project was a success because of their determination to make change happen through an evidence based, inclusive approach. While preventing plastic pollution from cotton buds by itself won’t put an end to plastic in our seas, it does show us all that industry, consumers and governments can work together to solve environmental issues. Change is possible.

About the blogger: With a background in chemistry Heather has worked for science and environmental NGOs around the world. Heather joined Fidra in April 2018 and as well as writing blogs she is working on chemical pollutants and is interested in citizen science projects and finding ways the public, industry, and scientists can work together for our environment. Email Heather at 

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