We had to do something about one of the UK's main offenders when it comes to plastic pollution - plastic cotton bud sticks.

Plastic cotton bud stems are the number one item of plastic, sewage-related debris on our beaches and rivers [1]. Here in the UK we’re flushing them down the loo … in their millions. Whilst getting people to stop flushing them is the ideal outcome, the perception of the loo as a ‘wet bin’ just doesn’t seem to go away. During heavy rainfall our sewers can overflow into our waterways and rivers, meaning anything we flush can get washed out to sea. Being so small, cotton bud stems can squeeze through sewage filters — which is why they make up over 60% of all sewage related beach litter (MCS, 2015).

In the marine environment, plastics can be eaten by marine life, often with fatal consequences. Plastic is found in the stomachs of Loggerhead Turtles, seabirds and many species of UK-caught fish. And pieces that don’t get eaten break down into micro-plastics, forming part of a dangerous plastic smog in our seas. 

UK retailers can help prevent this by making a single change - switching the stick from plastic to paper.  In 2016 we launched a petition with 38 Degrees  which was signed by over 150,000 of you calling on UK retailers to switch from plastic cotton bud sticks - back to paper.

Campaign success

Thanks to your support and pressure, ALL the UK retailers announced they would ‘Switch the Stick’ and only sell biodegradable paper stem buds. A move which will stop over 478 tonnes of single-use, non-recyclable plastic being produced each year!

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl, Superdrug, Boots UK and Wilko all made announcements at the end of 2016 pledging to make the change by the end of 2017.

A Tesco’s spokesperson commented: “We’re committed to ensuring all of our own label cotton bud products will be made with paper stems, and will do this by the end of 2017.”

Similarly, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We have been working hard to improve this product. Our new cotton buds, with 100% biodegradable stems, will be available before the end of 2017.”

An Asda spokesperson said: “This is an area where we’re working hard to make a difference and we’re pleased to confirm that all our own brand cotton buds products will be made with paper stems by 2017.”

We’re delighted with the commitment from so many major supermarkets to ‘Switch the Stick’ from plastic to paper stem buds. Whilst they still shouldn’t be flushed, this move will stop millions of plastic stems ending up in the marine environment each year and is a huge win in the fight against marine plastic pollution.” - Natalie Fee, Founder of City to Sea.

Thank you to EVERYONE who supported this campaign, to Fidra for their work with the Cotton Bud Project ... and especially to Wessex Water, Thames Water and Anglian Water for funding #SwitchtheStick!

Huge thanks to Rob Greenfield for creating this amazing video for us!