Stemming plastic pollution: Retailers, manufacturers and public back ban on plastic cotton bud sticks in Scotland

The issue and solution

Ahead of the UN environment summit in Nairobi the UN Oceans Chief, Lisa Svensson, said ‘This [plastic pollution] is a planetary crisis’[1]. We feel the same, and over the past 5 years, staff at Fidra have been working with industry to help solve one part of this global issue; the pollution of single-use plastic cotton buds. As the 8th most common piece of plastic pollution found on our beaches[2] we realised that plastic cotton buds were an unnecessary use of this convenient but environmentally damaging product. Sadly, joining the thousands of sanitary products flushed down toilets every day, these cotton buds find their way into our oceans through sewage systems and waterways. One solution; to change the material used for these everyday items. Fidra worked with industry to float this idea and encourage the transition from plastic to paper stems. Success came when Johnson & Johnson ltd were the first manufacturer to work alongside Fidra and commit to this change.

A step forward

Plastics are currently very much on the public’s agenda. Fidra’s work, supported by our partners and the retailers who have already changed, led to the Scottish Government announcing plans to introduce a ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic stemmed cotton buds in Scotland in January 2018. Upon this announcement, Fidra sprang into action and contacted charities, companies and individuals to rally support as well as providing back ground information through the Cotton Bud Project. When the response report was released it showed 99.4% of respondents supported a ban on plastic stemmed cotton buds, including Boots UK and Waitrose[3]. With over 800 responses, from concerned individuals and environmental charities to industry leaders this was an extremely positive result.

More success

From the Cotton Bud Project’s beginnings on a beach in East Lothian, Scotland, to the announcement in April 2018 that the UK government plans to ban the sale and manufacture of single use plastic stemmed cotton buds[4], this cooperation and discussion between Fidra and industry has proved key in showing that positive change is possible in the commercial environment. Now, encouraged and support by the Cotton Bud Project, supermarkets and industry leaders are switching plastic for paper. Michael Harris from Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd commented on the decision after working alongside our team:


“It’s a long and complex process to change consumer behaviour so as not to flush cotton buds. A short term solution was needed. We found that a stem made from paper works exactly the same as plastic. There is no loss of performance or customer satisfaction with a cotton bud product if the stem is changes from plastic to paper. Consequently,  we arrived at the conclusion that whilst cotton buds shouldn’t be being flushed, they will continue to be flushed - at least in the short term. Changing to a paper stem would make the stem biodegradable and avoid persistent plastic stems remaining in the environment.”

  • Michael Harris | Category Technical Manager | Household & Pet
    Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd 


We believe that this is clear evidence that working with industry to find solutions will influence change on a larger scale and help stem (no pun intended) the plastic tide.

Find out more about how Fidra’s Cotton Bud Project helped solve this problem over on our main site here.


Cotton buds Archerfield East Lothian 2016 300x169 






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