The Solution

A material change

Fidra 61

The solution; engage with industry to encourage a switch from plastic for paper.

We don’t want to see cotton buds flushed down the toilet any more than the next person, however, so far, this behaviour continues despite efforts to change people’s habits. So, switching plastic for paper seemed like the obvious solution; using a biodegradable material that, if flushed, would settle out of sewage before reaching the sea.

Our work

Understanding the problem of marine plastics was essential. Contacting scientists working on the issue and building a picture of the issues surrounding marine litter helped focus the project and its messaging.

Industry and Public Engagement

Industry engagement was started early on. We approached major retailers and manufactures to understand their perspective and engage them on the issue of marine pollution to highlight the issues plastic cotton buds cause our wildlife and environment. Calls, emails and meetings were part of Fidra’s persistent but polite approach. By facilitating dialogue with industry, we were able to suggest solutions that successfully led to paper stems being produced and placed on supermarket shelves

Working alongside industry and scientists we began to undertake conversations with water companies to identify the solutions. Public engagement and citizen science were key in building a picture of cotton bud pollution. This provided clear evidence for the presence of plastic cotton buds on coastlines worldwide and showed people care about the issue.

When we started getting positive response from industry, the ‘GoodBuddy’ list was set up to highlight companies who were making changes to prevent this form of pollution.  This celebrated success, raising awareness of those making positive changes and applying some pressure to those retailers who were not.

This solution helped prevent some plastic stems from ever reaching the ocean and paved the way for legislation.

The Cotton Bud Project Case Study Timeline


Policy Change


In Scotland, draft legislation to ban the sale and manufacture of cotton buds was published online following a period of long-term engagement with Fidra. This led to the joint announcement of the proposals to ban cotton buds in 2017. Following a similar consultation, the UK government released their response report and confirmed the commitment to banning the sale and distribution of plastic stemmed cotton buds in the UK. You can read both our consultation responses here.  

In Europe, the agreement and adoption of the European Single Use Plastics Directive provides reassurance that The Cotton Bud Project has been a success and that a European wide ban on plastic stemmed cotton buds will be in place by 2021.


Some reasoning

  • Behaviour wasn’t changing: In recent years concerted campaigns to encourage consumers to dispose of cotton buds (and other sanitary waste) correctly; in household rubbish rather than down the toilet have been unsuccessful. 'Bag it and bin it' and other public education schemes have had short lived success, with results being achieved during the active campaign, but pollution returning to original levels following the end of the campaign
  • Infrastructure change might not be effective: Even the finest sewage screen mesh sizes of 3mm do not retain all plastic cotton buds, whose diameters are about 2mm
  • Other options too costly: Changing the 31,000 combined sewerage outflows in the UK was seen as financially and logistically untenable, meaning improperly disposed of cotton buds continue to enter the sea with untreated sewage




Take a look at how the cotton bud project achieved its success take by viewing the following useful documents:

  • A timeline infographic for the project
  • An approach infographic
  • A case study document outlining in more detail the project background, approach and reasoning. To request a copy contact Fidra at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Next steps

With a growing number of manufacturers and retailers switching from plastic to paper cotton buds and legislation coming into force in several countries it looks like plastic stemmed cotton buds may soon be a thing of the past. At Fidra we are now working on a number of other projects to address plastic and chemical pollution; from plastic pellets to plastic pitches, polystyrene takeaways to tickets.