We are surrounded by many types of plastic that we use and throw away at an incredible rate in our daily lives. It is estimated that more than 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year and that 50% of all plastic produced is for single use. It is sad to think that something that was originally created as a strong and sturdy material that would last forever ends up being used only once and then thrown away; a contradiction created by the wasteful habits of our society. One example of single use plastic is cotton buds; in 2016 more than 13,000 cotton swabs were found in total in beaches across Europe. This damages the natural environment and poses great danger to marine life. Cotton swabs may be an essential item for our personal hygiene, but how to avoid the impact created by their use?
First of all, you should think if you really need to use cotton buds. Whatever you use them for can you identify an alternative that is reusable? If it is for make-up for example, there are cloths and sponges that you can clean and use again another time. If you are using them to clean your inner ears, you probably shouldn’t as ear wax is actually a natural protection from insects and infections. If you have excess it is better to use a wet cloth, mineral oil drops or remove it in the shower.
If you really need to use cotton swabs then look at the alternatives. There are three main types available in the market: plastic, paper and bamboo. Plastic used in these products is generally non-recyclable and creates a great deal of pollution. Paper and bamboo are natural and biodegradable materials and cause much lower impact.
The worst thing you can do after using a cotton swab is flush it down the toilet. If you do that it will go through the sewage system and, in addition to the potential of causing blockages, it will be carried straight to river streams and subsequently to the sea and end up being washed back to the beaches. Either plastic, paper or bamboo cotton swabs should be disposed of in your general waste which is normally sent to landfill. Bamboo and paper, even if sent to landfill are biodegradable so will break down and have much reduced impact but plastic will accumulate in landfill for decades!
After much campaigning and pressure from non-profit organizations committed to the reduction of plastics in our oceans, several brands and manufacturers have agreed to change their cotton buds from plastic to paper stems. You can see a full list here. It is our responsibility to make good choices and dispose of cotton buds correctly but it is also the manufacturer and retailer’s responsibility to put products for sale that will not damage the environment. After all, there is no reason to justify using plastic on products that work perfectly well with an alternative material. The #switchthestick campaign is trying get more retailers to take action and switch their plastic cotton buds to paper, you can sign the petition here.
If you love going to the beach like me, and don’t want to see those plastic intruders in the sand next time, remember to reduce your cotton bud use; never, never flush them down the toilet and #switchthestick to Green It Yourself…Now!