Cotton Bud Project

Rethinking single use plastic

Cotton Bud Project

Single-use plastic in our environment puts pressure on ecosystems under increasing strain from the climate and biodiversity crisis. Our Cotton Bud Project shows government and industry that change is possible, and plastic could be replaced and rethought in many everyday products.

Cotton Buds

Plastic can easily escape ending up in the environment


In the UK alone it is estimated that we use 1.8 billion, mostly single use, cotton buds every year.

Plastic single stemmed cotton buds were composed from a lightweight plastic (propylene) and they were being found in seabirds.

In 2018, 36 plastic cotton buds were found for every 100 meters of Scottish beach surveyed High usage and improper disposal (flushing used cotton buds down toilets), was resulting in widespread pollution of waterways and the marine environment).

Once in the environment microplastic can build up


Fidra used an evidence-based approach, working with scientists and industry to identify a solution, as previous initiatives such as behaviour change campaigns or adding filters to sewage treatment were not viable long term. We found that paper stemmed cotton buds disintegrated and wouldn’t persist in the environment avoiding the harm plastic stems cause wildlife. Using evidence, such as the Marine Conservation Society’s Beach Clean data collected by thousands of volunteers, we were able to engage manufacturers, industry, governments and the community to demonstrate the scale of the problem and the viability of solution.


Consider if a single-use plastic item is essential, and if so look for alternatives that are reusable.

If items have to be single-use, select ones that are made of materials which are easily disposed of in a waste stream, for example easily recyclable.

If items have to be single-use, select materials that will be less harmful and less persistent than plastic if they are lost to the environment and breakdown easily into non-toxic parts.


Fidra saw initial success when leading manufacture Johnson & Johnson agreed to swap their cotton bud stems from plastic to paper, this showed retailers and others that change was possible. However to ensure all retailers and manufacturers made the change, a lasting solution was needed; legislation. Fidra played a key role in the introduction of legislation to ban the sale and manufacture of cotton buds in Scotland, providing evidence of cotton bud pollution’s impact, demonstrating the availability of alternatives and securing support for legislation from the public and retailers. The ban came into force in 2018.

Since then the UK government banned the sale and distribution of plastic stemmed cotton buds too. In Europe, the agreement and adoption of the European Single Use Plastics Directive provides reassurance that The Cotton Bud Project has been a success.

Since July 2021 single-use plastic-stemmed cotton buds were banned European wide.


The Cotton Bud Project was supported by:

Fauna and Flora International, Marine Conservation Society, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Scottish Government.