Scotland will ban plastic cotton buds

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 11 January 2018

Scotland’s Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, has announced plans to introduce legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic stemmed cotton buds.

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© Catherine Gemmell

For things that are maybe used for just five minutes to clean out ears or put on eye make-up – they can cause huge impacts on our oceans for hundreds of years.”

Catherine Gemmell,
MCS Scotland Conservation Officer

The proposals will be put to public consultation and would position Scotland as the first country in the UK to legislate against these environmentally damaging items.

“After finding over 3500 plastic cotton bud sticks on beaches across Scotland during our Great British Beach Clean in 2017, that’s an average of 29 for every 100m surveyed, we’re delighted to hear Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s plans to ban the making and selling of them in Scotland,” said Catherine Gemmell, MCS Scotland Conservation Officer. “For things that are maybe used for just five minutes to clean out ears or put on eye make-up – they can cause huge impacts on our oceans for hundreds of years.”

Plastic cotton buds are consistently listed in the top 10 items found by volunteers during MCS beach cleans and litter surveys. We have provided years of data on cotton bud sticks to Scottish environmental charity Fidra, to help their Cotton Bud Project which encourages industry to promote biodegradable alternatives.

Cotton bud sticks are often wrongly flushed down the toilet and, due to their structure, pass through the majority of sewage treatment works meaning they end up in the sea, where they lose cotton and accumulate toxins like PCBs. They can be ingested by marine life, causing physical damage or starvation, and release dangerous chemicals either incorporated into the plastic itself or adsorbed from the environment.

“Paper and cardboard alternatives are already available for those who need them,” said Catherine Gemmell, “The ban will help us all make the change, however, no matter what it is made of, we still want everyone to only flush the 3 P’s down the loo - pee, poo and paper, for the sake of Scotland’s seas!”

Announcing the proposals, Roseanna Cunningham said: “Banning plastic cotton buds would be a clear sign of our ambition to address marine plastics and demonstrate further leadership on this issue. Despite various campaigns, people are continuing to flush litter down their toilets. This has to stop.

“Scotland’s sewerage infrastructure collects and treats some 945 million litres of wastewater each day. These systems are not designed to remove small plastic items such as plastic buds which can kill marine animals and birds that swallow them.

“These products are completely unnecessary as biodegradable alternatives are readily available. The need for action is clear and I would encourage everyone with an interest in safeguarding our natural environment to take part in the consultation when it opens.”

Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland for the Marine Conservation Society said: “This is a welcome move that will help stop the tide of plastic ending up on our beaches and in our seas. We support the banning of plastic from the manufacture of cotton buds as this will reduce the amount of single-use plastic being used and sent to landfill, and if flushed - which we firmly discourage regardless of material made from - the number contributing to the rising tide of plastic in our seas and on our beaches.”

Alasdair Neilson project officer at Fidra which runs The Cotton Bud Project said: “This progressive step will be welcomed by everyone who has seen cotton buds polluting our beaches and harming our wildlife. A ban would support the responsible businesses that have already removed this single-use plastic item from their shelves. Let’s hope it also marks a bigger shift in the way we use and value plastics.

“These products are completely unnecessary as biodegradable alternatives are readily available. The need for action is clear and I would encourage everyone with an interest in safeguarding our natural environment to take part in the consultation when it opens.”

MCS is currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

Actions you can take

  1. Find out more about Scottish Wildlife
  2. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2017
  3. Help us stop the plastic tide
  4. Browse Scotland's Marine Atlas

Did you know?…

Litter has increased by 135% since 1994, with plastics increasing by a staggering 180%

Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces

We removed 568,000 pieces of litter from our coasts in one year

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