THEY are manufactured in their millions, carelessly flushed down the toilet and then washed ashore, making Scotland's beaches among the worst in Britain's litter league of shame.
Cotton-bud sticks – which can pass through even the most sophisticated sewage-screening systems – are part of a growing mountain of plastic flotsam that is threatening the fragile marine environment and the lives of almost 200 species of wildlife around our coast.
A damning report by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) yesterday identified them as one of the major factors in Scotland's dreadful record for sewage-related debris. It revealed that a staggering 8,000 cotton bud sticks were found on a single beach in Scotland – East Bay in Helensburgh – during a recent annual check.
Seabirds, turtles, whales, seals and various fish species have died of starvation or poisoning after mistaking marine litter for food.
The "Beachwatch" survey report also reveals that the amount of plastic of various types now blighting Britain's beaches is at its highest level since records began. Plastic litter – including shopping bags, drinks bottles and plastic-based cigarette butts – has increased by a staggering 126 per cent since the annual survey began in 1994, and now accounts for more than 58 per cent of all beach litter.
Because plastic is so durable, it persists far longer than other forms of litter, and it could have fatal consequences for marine wildlife. A plastic carrier bag will last for anything from 20 to perhaps 1,000 years.
Anne Saunders, the Scottish projects officer for the MCS, said the results of the survey were shocking. "In the last ten years, plastic drinks bottles have increased by 67 per cent, plastic bags by 54 per cent and cigarette butts by 44 per cent," she said.
"The plastic litter problem needs to be tackled at all levels, from grassroots through to government, while industry and retail sectors must acknowledge the need to reduce plastic-bag use and packaging."
A spokesman for the MCS said: "The litter found in these surveys is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg – no-one knows how much litter is really out there and what effects it is having on our planet.
"Over 170 species of marine wildlife, including seabirds, turtles and whales, have been recorded mistaking marine litter for food, resulting in starvation, poisoning and fatal stomach blockages.
"In addition, plastic packaging and discarded fishing nets injure, entangle and drown some of Britain's favourite marine wildlife, including seals and dolphins."
Four years ago, a rare Cuvier's beaked whale washed up on Mull. The entrance to its stomach was blocked with a cylinder of tightly packed, shredded bin-liners and fishing twine.
James Reynolds, a spokesman for the RSPB Scotland, backed the MCS warning. He said: "The raw pellets used for the manufacture of plastic products, and many smaller plastic products that are thoughtlessly discarded, frequently find their way into our seas and oceans.
"Unfortunately, these are often mistaken for prey items and routinely ingested by huge numbers of seabirds, such as fulmars in the UK. This can lead to blockages and congestion in their digestive systems that prevent them from being able to extract any nourishment from their food, and can condemn them to a slow, premature death from starvation."
Ms Saunders said the "tide of cotton-bud sticks" had helped to place Scotland at the bottom of the UK league for beach litter. Sewage-related debris, mainly cotton-bud sticks, accounted for 26 per cent of the total litter found in Scotland.
Ms Saunders said: "Some of the problem will be from sewage treatment plants. But one of the main reasons for the problem is that people just flush items like cotton buds, razors and mop-heads down the toilet, (and think] they will just disappear."
A spokesman for Scottish Water, which is responsible for sewage treatment works, said "The waste-water system simply wasn't designed to cope with items such as sanitary products which can cause blockages in pipes and damage screens at treatment plants," he said.
"We are investing heavily in Helensburgh. Improvements to discharge points and better screening of outfalls will help reduce, for example, the amount of sanitary products, such as cotton buds, that end up on the beach."
Mike Russell, the environment minister, said: "We all have a responsibility to ensure our rubbish is disposed of in the proper manner." "
A spokeswoman for Boots, a major supplier of cotton buds, said: "All Boots' packaging carries the 'bag it and bin it, don't flush it' symbol."
Billion litres of sewage per day
NEARLY one billion litres of waste water or sewage from Scottish households, businesses and industry is taken away and treated by Scottish Water eavery day, before being returned to Scotland's rivers and seas.
The solid sludge in raw sewage, which sinks to the bottom of the treatment tanks, can be treated to make the solids harmless, and the final product can be used for soil improvement on agricultural land.
The remaining effluent is treated again and can be discharged to water courses, such as rivers, or direct into the sea through long sea outfalls and other discharge systems.
PROTECTING OUR MARINE LIFE
THE Scotsman is campaigning to protect our precious marine life. We want:
• A network of marine reserves and protected areas to be created to safeguard sites properly
• A system of marine planning, effectively zoning areas for appropriate use, to safeguard important fishing grounds from offshore wind farms and other projects
• A single organisation to administer this system
• Scotland to be given control of conservation to the 200-mile boundary with international waters
It is hoped that many of these issues will be dealt in a Scottish marine bill, which has been promised by the Scottish Government. A draft UK Marine Bill was published in Westminster last week.