I still remember the first time that I saw that viral image of a seahorse clinging to a used cotton bud in polluted water near Indonesia.
I didn’t know whether to smile at how cute it was, or just sit and cry.
Because whilst the image is undoubtedly beautiful, it tells a sad truth of the state of the planet these days.
Despite the name ‘cotton bud’, cotton buds are made primarily from plastic rather than cotton, so they’re far from natural or environmentally friendly.
Thanks in part to single-use plastic items like these cotton buds (and plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, plastic cutlery, plastic bags and the like), our oceans are filling with plastic which can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, if they ever do at all.
Not only does this look terrible, these plastics are often mistaken for food by marine animals.
Their digestive systems weren’t designed to cope with these man-made products and so it ends up accumulating inside their bodies and slowly killing them.
Worse still, it can even end up in the human food chain. According to some estimates, many of us could be consuming thousands of pieces of microplastics on a daily basis too.
Far from being a problem that affects distant oceans, plastic pollution is happening right here on the shores of the British Isles, with cotton buds among the most commonly found items washed up on our beaches.
So, what can we do about it?
How can we dispose of those plastic cotton buds (also known as cotton swabs or Q-Tips) properly so they don’t end up polluting the oceans and killing marine life?
Can we throw them into the recycling? What about eco-friendly alternatives? Let’s dive in and take a look.
How to Dispose of Plastic Cotton Buds Properly
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as disposing of plastic cotton buds ‘properly’.
They’re made from single-use plastics plus a cotton tip so they can’t be recycled and simply need to go into the regular rubbish bin.
Plastic cotton buds aren’t recyclable.
Once binned, they’ll just end up in landfill where they’ll sit for hundreds if not thousands of years or end up getting washed into the rivers and oceans, ending up as a surfboard for another seahorse somewhere.
The very worst thing you could do is flush them down the toilet.
You see, wastewater treatment plants have only been designed to deal with poo, pee and paper.
They’re not supposed to be general waste bins and so can’t deal with anything extra like cotton buds, cotton pads or so-called flushable wipes.
If you do flush those used cotton buds, they’ll often stick together and block the pipes or pass through the filters in the wastewater treatment plant and entering the treatment works.
From there they often overflow into rivers and storm sewage outlets and end up in the oceans.
Can You Recycle Paper Cotton Buds?
No, you can’t recycle paper cotton buds either.
Even though the stem is made from a fully recyclable material, the ear bud itself will still be contaminated with ear wax, make up, or whatever you’ve used it for.
This, and the fact that the bud is made from mixed materials means they’re impossible to recycle.
However, if you have a compost heap then you can throw your paper cotton buds right in and they’ll decompose nicely.
Otherwise, I’m afraid you’ll have to throw them into the regular waste.
What Are the Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Cotton Buds?
It’s clearly time to stop using plastic cotton buds.
But what are the alternatives? Here are your two main choices.
1. Stop using cotton buds
The best alternative to cotton buds is just to stop using cotton buds altogether.
Most people don’t actually need to use cotton buds at all because our ears usually do a pretty good job of keeping themselves clean and they can easily use other items to help remove their makeup or similar.
The NHS recommend against putting cotton buds in your ears, as they can do more harm than good.
Of course, it’s not easy to simply quit because we’re used to having them in our bathrooms, but the effort will really pay off in environmental terms.
If we don’t make cotton buds in the first place, we wouldn’t need to produce all that cotton, paper or plastic and so the benefits to the environment would be massive.
2. Choose plastic-free cotton buds
It’s very easy to find plastic-free cotton buds these days, especially in the UK. All the major UK supermarkets have either replaced the plastic with paper or have plans to do so.
You can also find cotton buds with bamboo or wood stems both in many high street shops and online.
The best of these also offer 100% organic cotton buds which also come in recyclable, reusable or sustainable packaging, for maximum eco-friendly brownie points.
Plastic cotton buds are yet another of those single-use plastic items that we could quite easily live without.
Next time you consider buying cotton buds, remember the photo of that poor seahorse and switch to compostable paper cotton buds or simply ditch cotton buds altogether.
For some more tips on reducing your plastic usage, see this guide to using less plastic.
Charlotte Witts is a writer and entrepreneur who wants to show you how easy it is to live a more conscious, zero-waste lifestyle. A confirmed yoga-addict, trail runner and ocean-lover, she currently lives in the Azores where she enjoys the simple pleasures in life.