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 clean up failed cat-eye attempts.
However useful they might be, cotton buds 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 European country — in part because we're such makeup junkies.
Many of these cotton buds end up in landfills, or are flushed down the toilet 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 issues and possibly other health impacts in wildlife and marine life that ingest the particles," Claire Norman, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, told Refinery29. "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 full 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," says Geoff Brighty, a science and policy advisor for 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 157,000 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.
There are also more eco-friendly compostable alternatives already on the market, including Swisspers Organic Biodegradable Cotton Swabs, which are $2.99 for a pack of 180 and are made from certified-organic cotton and a biodegradable stick, with many similar brands available both online and at drugstores. Proof that you can have your handy beauty tool and your planet, too.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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