It's only happening in half the world. The rest of us can keep using plastic sticks. (Don't they know about ocean currents?)
This week, in response to consumer pressure, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson changed its outdated recipe for cotton buds (also know as cotton swabs). From now on, some of them will be made with paper sticks, instead of plastic. This is an important change because there is no proper way to dispose of cotton buds. They cannot be recycled, so after use they’re either tossed in the trash or flushed down the toilet, ultimately ending up in waterways and along shorelines – forever.
According to the Marine Conservation Society, which conducts annual beach clean-ups in the UK, plastic cotton buds were the sixth most common plastic waste item found on British beaches in 2016.
Johnson & Johnson has recognized the unnecessary damage caused by its plastic sticks. Group marketing manager Niamh Finan told The Independent:
“We recognise that our products have an environmental footprint, and that’s why we’re working hard to continually improve and champion best practice in sustainability, in line with our company’s founding principles.”
Scottish environmental group Fidra, which has long campaigned against plastic cotton buds, heralds the decision as a great success. Stated in a press release published on its Cotton Bud Project website:
“The fact that cotton buds continue to be flushed down the toilet and escape through sewage works into the environment means it remains a problem. Switching cotton bud stems from plastic to 100% paper could provide a solution to this problem, combined with campaigns to raise consumer awareness about correct disposal methods. Paper stems should not be flushed but those that do reach the sewage system will become waterlogged and settle out of wastewater, never reaching our beaches.”
There is something very strange, however, about Johnson & Johnson’s decision. The company is only switching from plastic to paper sticks in half the world. So stores in Europe will get paper-only sticks, but it seems that Australia, North America, and Asia will continue to stock plastic. Currently there is no mention of whether or not the change will be happening elsewhere.
It is an oddly localized response to a serious global crisis. Ocean plastic pollution is a problem of the commons – something for which we all must take responsibility, no matter where we live. In fact, responding naïvely by region doesn’t even work because places like the UK receive plastic trash from all parts of the globe. (Watch A Plastic Tide documentary to learn the tragic story of a community in Scotland where Asia’s garbage washes up daily.)
The other irritating thing is that cotton buds, whether plastic or paper, are an example of a utterly superfluous product – something we don’t even need to manufacture in the first place. Doing away with them altogether would be a better way of professing concern for the planet – not only for the oceans, but also for the cotton fields that soak up most of the world’s agrochemicals.
Ocean plastic pollution is a problem of the commons – something for which we all must take responsibility, no matter where we live.
One good thing to come out of the decision is reducing plastic production overall. Fidra’s press release cites research by British supermarket chain Waitrose, estimating this change will save 21 tons of plastic a year. But seriously, that’s “a mere drop in the ocean compared to the 4.8-12.7 million tons of total plastic waste that researchers calculate are entering our oceans every year.”
I haven’t bought cotton buds in nearly a decade; I suspect it’s similar for most people who care deeply about avoiding single-use disposables. Suffice it to say, this regional corporate decision doesn’t impress me all that much. Why can't Johnson & Johnson, at the very least, make the transition to all-paper buds world-wide? That would be some real progress.