Ban of plastic-stemmed cotton buds: consultation response

Summary of responses to the Scottish Government's proposal to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

1. Introduction and background


Marine litter is a global challenge, affecting the world's oceans, seas, coastlines and shores. It is defined as any solid material which has been deliberately discarded or unintentionally lost on beaches, shores or at sea, including materials transported into the marine environment from land by rivers, draining or sewage systems or winds [1] . The problem is largely caused by a range of very slowly degradable material such as plastics, metals and glass. The most commonly found litter at sea and washed ashore is plastic [2][3] .

Marine plastics have a negative impact on our marine environment, our economy and they threaten human health. Larger plastic items in our seas can entangle animals, smother habitats, damage tourism and pose a serious risk to life and livelihood by causing breakdown of vessels at sea. As a result of sunlight and wave exposure, plastics become fragmented, making their way into the marine ecosystem by ingestion, consumed by creatures as small as plankton to as large as sea mammals. Plastic fragments cause obstruction and physical damage to the digestive tracts of animals which eat them and can result in death, plastics may also act as a vector for contaminants. Toxins such as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons ( PAHs), Polychlorinated Biphenyls ( PCBs) and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers ( PBDEs) and metals such as lead, copper and cadmium can accumulate in plastics [4][5][6][7] .

Tackling marine litter requires governments, industry and communities to reduce the amount of litter entering the marine environment from land and sea-based sources and to also remove litter that is already there. The Scottish Government published its Marine Litter Strategy [8] in 2014 which aims to develop current and future measures to ensure that the amount of litter entering the marine and coastal environment is minimised to bring ecological, economic and social benefits. In addition to over 40 action points in this Strategy, the Scottish Government has prioritised action on plastics with four commitments in its Programme for Government [9] ;

  • Introducing a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers
  • Establishing an expert panel to consider actions to reduce the demand for single-use items
  • Hosting an international conference to discuss improving our marine environment and protecting our wildlife, focusing on marine plastics
  • Committing £500,000 to begin to address litter sinks around the coast and to develop policy to address marine plastics, which will involve working with community groups.

We want to deliver on the commitment to develop policy to address marine plastics with new legislation to take action on one of Scotland's most common pieces of beach litter, plastic-stemmed cotton buds. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform announced the intention to introduce a ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds on 11 January 2018.


Plastic cotton buds are contributing to the global marine plastic problem, damaging the marine environment, increasing risk to public health from contact on beaches and bathing waters and risking health further when fragments of plastic enter the food chain. They are in our seas because people are continuing to flush them down toilets and sewage treatment works cannot prevent all of them reaching the sea. When entering sewage systems the plastic stems do not settle with organics, their buoyancy allows them to flow through plant equipment and their narrow diameter means they are not caught by all screens.

Plastic cotton bud stems are consistently observed to constitute approximately 5-10% of marine debris surveyed in European seas [10] . The Marine Conservation Society has been monitoring the levels of cotton buds found on beaches in the UK since 2004. They continue to feature in the top ten most common marine litter items in beach clean surveys with an average of 27 for every 100m of beach surveyed in 2017 [11] .

Previous actions to tackle the issue

Multiple campaigns have targeted consumer behaviour to encourage people to stop using their toilets as rubbish bins for many litter items, including cotton buds. These campaigns include Scottish Water's "Bag it and Bin it" [12] and "Keep the water cycle running smoothly" [13] and the Marine Conservation Society's "The Unflushables" [14] which highlights the problem of sewer abuse. Product labelling to encourage responsible disposal has also been used by many brands. Historic campaigns have not resulted in any long-term measurable reduction in the number of cotton buds being flushed down toilets and washing up on beaches.

Fidra, a Scottish environmental charity, has worked with manufacturers and retailers to encourage a change from plastic-stemmed cotton buds to biodegradable alternatives. They have focused on changing the material from which cotton buds are made making them less likely to escape through waste water systems and reduce the unnecessary use of plastic material. Substitute stems are made from fully natural materials such as paper which is preferably Forest Stewardship Council accredited. Their "Cotton Bud Project" [15] has had great success with many retailers including the largest supermarkets and the major manufacturer Johnson & Johnson Ltd committing and changing to the non-plastic option. While the action of these retailers and suppliers is to be applauded, plastic-stemmed cotton buds are still currently available to buy in Scotland.

Rationale for the proposal

The Scottish Government proposes to introduce legislation which bans the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds based on the evidence summarised in this paper, namely

  • Plastics in our seas harm our marine environment.
  • Plastic-stemmed cotton buds are contributing to this problem and are one of the most commonly found items of plastic litter washed up on our shores.
  • Campaigns to promote behaviour change have failed to stop the irresponsible disposal of these items down toilets.
  • The 'Cotton bud project' has demonstrated that manufacturers and retailers are able to trade in viable biodegradable alternative products and there is therefore no known reason as to why other companies would be unable to follow this best practice.

The Consultation Paper

The consultation paper presented the background information and questions inviting views about the potential environmental and economic impacts of banning plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

In line with its stated commitment to encouraging public participation in the debate on plastic-stemmed cotton buds, the Scottish Government took a number of steps to make information about the consultation widely available. This included sharing the online link with stakeholders, posting the link on social media and Cabinet Secretary references to the consultation in the media.

The consultation contained the following ten questions, the first two were to inform the decision making process with regards to the proposed legislation, the remaining questions were to provide supporting metadata:

Question 1: Do you support the proposal to introduce a ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in Scotland? (Please give reasons)

Question 2: If you are responding as a business, can you provide supporting evidence of any expected additional costs from this proposed ban?

Question 3: Are you content for the Scottish Government to contact you for further clarification of the financial effects that you have estimated?

Question 4: What is your name?

Question 5: What is your email address?

Question 6: Are you responding as an individual or an organisation?

Question 7: Sector and Origin: It would be helpful for our analysis if you could indicate which of the sectors you most align yourself/your organisation with for the purpose of this consultation (please tick one which is most applicable to you)

Question 8: What is your organisation?

Question 9: The Scottish Government would like your permission to publish your consultation response. Please indicate your publishing preference

Question 10: We will share your response internally with other Scottish Government policy teams who may be addressing the issues you discuss. They may wish to contact you again in the future, but we require your permission to do so. Are you content for Scottish Government to contact you again in relation to this consultation exercise?

About the analysis

As seen in Chapter 2, this consultation attracted 847 responses. It is important to bear in mind, however, that by their very nature, public consultations are not necessarily representative of the views of the wider population. Anyone can submit their views, and individuals (and organisations) who have a keen interest in a topic – and the capacity to respond – are more likely to participate in a consultation than those who do not. This self-selection means that the views of consultation participants cannot be generalised to the wider population.

For this reason, the approach to consultation analysis tends to be qualitative in nature. Its main purpose is not to identify how many people held particular views, but rather to understand the range of views expressed.

Basic frequency analysis has been carried out to report the numbers and types of responses received. Chapter 3 gives an overview of the responses in the conclusions section.


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