Goodbye plastic: Cotton-buds


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1923 was the year the first earbud, or cotton-bud, was sold. Until then we’d been pretty ok with wax in our ears. I hadn’t really given them much thought – any thought to be honest – until a friend posted something online about the surprising amount of plastic waste they are responsible for.

We’re not massive earbud users in our house (although usage has inexplicably grown over the years), but really, it was a zero-hassle swap this week from earbuds with plastic sticks to those with paper sticks if they do appear on your shopping list. Even if you just use them to clean between computer keys or to unstick zips.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the packaging for earbuds started advising you not to do exactly what the product was intended for: stick it in your ears. A newspaper article from the early 2000s reported that more than 7000 people a year attended the Accident and Emergency department in the UK with injuries caused by earbuds: more injuries than are caused by razor blades.

Anyway, back to the plastic. Wooden sticks gave way to paper and then more recently to plastic. In a big way…

This is the aisle in a big supermarket near us. Nearly all are plastic earbuds, but if you look carefully you can see one brand of non plastic ones. In a cardboard box (with a plastic window), because the boxes don’t need to be made from plastic either. The baby aisle also had paper earbuds: but at more that three times the price.

This is in France. You can find paper alternatives hiding on the supermarket shelf - similarly priced.

This is in France. You can find paper alternatives hiding on the supermarket shelf – similarly priced.

I did a bit of research: what do plastic earbuds matter anyway? Turns out a lot. Many people flush them down the toilet, so they end up in the sea. The World Economic Forum estimate that, if the current rate of plastic appearing in the ocean continues (a staggering 8 million tonnes a year – and remember how light plastic is) then there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

See the World Economic Forum infographic here:

https://twitter.com/wef/status/689398178538356736/photo/1

So Plastic Warriors, if you need cotton-buds in your life, why not buy biodegradable ones? From today?


Next week – how many plastic bottles do we use, can we reduce that, and what can we do with them?

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