The Everyday Beauty Tool You Didn't Know Was Ruining Our Oceans

Photographed by Megan Madden
Even if you don't use them regularly, chances are you have a pack of cotton buds in your makeup bag or lurking in your bathroom cabinet. They've become a household essential for many, used to wipe away stray bits of mascara and mop up failed cat-eye attempts.
However useful, they are wreaking havoc on the environment. According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, the UK uses 13.2 billion of them annually, more than any other EU country, in part because we're such makeup junkies.
Many of these cotton buds end up in landfill or are flushed down the loo and end up in our oceans where they're eaten by birds and fish and can cause serious damage. "Even after they break down into smaller plastic particles, they cause digestive and possibly other health impacts on wildlife and marine life that ingest the particles," Claire Norman, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, told Refinery29.

Cotton buds are a million times more toxic than the surrounding seawater they pollute.

"This is made worse by the fact that plastic micro-particles absorb persistent organic pollutants and other toxins, making them a million times more toxic than surrounding seawater, and this toxicity is concentrated as it moves up the food chain."
Luckily, a war against plastic cotton buds is currently underway. The government recently announced a potential ban in England (along with plastic straws and stirrers), as part of its long-overdue crusade against plastic waste, while the Scottish government is a step ahead, announcing a ban in January.
Many major shops, including the big UK supermarkets and health and beauty retailers like Boots and Superdrug, have also promised to phase out plastic-stemmed buds in the last few years, but they are still widely used elsewhere, from beauty salons to gyms as well as at home.
Superdrug told Refinery29 that while it has asked its own-brand cotton bud supplier to switch to a new paper formulation, there are a "few of the old design left in the business". These will likely have been fully replaced by paper-stemmed buds by this summer, the company adds.
"Wastewater treatment works aren't designed to deal with small waste like cotton buds and they pass through the filter screens and enter the works," said Geoff Brighty, from the nonprofit Plastic Oceans UK. "Once the material is at a wastewater treatment works, the problem can arise in times of high rainfall where the works simply overflow, and you get the sudden release of all wastewater material in the system out into the rivers and coasts from storm sewage outfalls."
Public support for a full ban in the UK seems to be strong, with a petition as part of City to Sea's #SwitchTheStick campaign having garnered more than 157k signatures. Many ethical beauty and lifestyle bloggers have thrown their weight behind the cause, including Rachael Stilgoe of Be a Shade Greener, Louise Dartford, the Ethical Unicorn, and Leotie Lovely.

Eco-friendly alternatives

There are many brands making compostable, paper-based buds on the market, including Surfers Against Sewage's bamboo cotton buds (£2.50 for 100), made from bamboo and soft cotton, which are 100% biodegradable, vegan and eco-friendly. Meanwhile, Simply Gentle's paper stem buds (£2.15 for 200) are made from 100% organic cotton and FSC paper stems, and there are many similar brands available online and even in supermarkets.
The Cotton Bud Project's 'Good Buddy' list helpfully rounds up other brands and major retailers that sell biodegradable cotton buds, which include The Body Shop, Muji, Co-Op, Johnson's and some of the big supermarkets.
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