In a move that experts say will cut Scotland’s marine plastic pollution in half, the government is proposing a ban to prohibit manufacturing and selling plastic-stemmed cotton buds.
A proposal to introduce the ban will be put to public consultation. If approved, Scotland will be the first country in the UK to legislate against the plastic pokies.
“Banning plastic cotton buds would be a clear sign of our ambition to address marine plastics and demonstrate further leadership on this issue,” said Scotland’s environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham.
You might wonder how your earwax cleaner makes its way from your bathroom to the beach. The answer is surprisingly simple: people flush them down the toilet. Scotland’s sewage infrastructure collects and treats around 945 million liters of waste water every day, says Cunningham. To put it in perspective, that's 378 Olympic size pools. During heavy rains, sewers can overflow into waterways and the small stems can squeeze through sewage filters. On the beach, the plastic from cotton swabs makes up over 60 percent of all sewer-related litter.
Switching to paper sticks means when waterlogged they will sink to the bottom of sewer treatment systems, stopping them from flowing out to sea.
A campaign that reached more than 150,000 signatures inspired retailers like multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson to "switch the stick" from plastic to paper. However, many plastic options are still imported by other companies.
“For things that are maybe used for just five minutes to clean out ears or eye make-up – they can cause huge impacts on our oceans for hundreds of years,” said Catherine Gemmell, conservation officer with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), in a statement. Last year MCS found more than 3,500 plastic cotton swabs on beaches across Scotland during its annual cleanup; an average of 29 for every 100 meters (328 feet).
The proposed ban follows a recent UK ban prohibiting the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products. Today, around 30 countries have implemented similar bans on plastic products.
At this very moment, an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating through the ocean and weigh more than 250,000 tons, according to a six-year study published in PLOS One. Every year 8 million tons of plastic goes into the ocean and estimates suggest marine plastics pollution will outweigh fish by 2050. Off the coast of Honduras, there is even a sea of plastic. All of this waste has a devastating effect on marine life, which often mistake plastic for food or habitat.
The plastic issue is so systemic that the United Nations has warned it poses a serious threat to human health after a study found more than a quarter of fish markets in Indonesia and California contain plastic particles.