Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham has announced plans to bring in legislation that will outlaw the sale and manufacture of cotton buds made with plastic stems north of the border.
Cotton buds are consistently among the ten most common – sometimes the most common – litter items found during beach surveys in Scotland.
They do not decompose, persisting in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and can cause serious harm to wildlife.
Announcing the move, Ms Cunningham said the ban would be “a clear sign” of the Scottish Government’s ambition to tackle plastic pollution.
“Despite various campaigns, people are continuing to flush litter down their toilets. This has to stop,” she said.
“Scotland’s sewerage infrastructure collects and treats some 945 million litres of waste water each day. These systems are not designed to remove small plastic items such as plastic buds, which can kill marine animals and birds that swallow them.
“These products are completely unnecessary as biodegradable alternatives are readily available.”
Figures from the Marine Conservation Society show there is an average of 29 cotton buds on every 100m of stretch of beach surveyed during clean-ups.
Environmentalists have welcomed the proposal, which they say could halve the country’s sewage-related marine plastic pollution.
Scottish environment charity Fidra runs the Cotton Bud Project, a campaign to keep plastic off beaches.
Project officer Alasdair Neilson said: “This progressive step will be welcomed by everyone who has seen cotton buds polluting our beaches and harming our wildlife.
“A ban would support the responsible businesses that have already removed this single-use plastic item from their shelves. Let’s hope it also marks a bigger shift in the way we use and value plastics.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, added: “This decisive action is great news for the environment and for wildlife.
“Cotton buds are a very visible sign of our hugely wasteful habits, turning up on beaches across the globe.
“Manufacturers and supermarkets are already moving in the right direction but this single measure will guarantee that Scotland cuts its contribution to marine plastic pollution.”
The physical structure of cotton buds allows them to bypass filters in many waste water treatment works and be released into the sea along with treated sewage. Once in the water they can pick up pollutants and concentrate them to toxic levels.
Over time the plastic stems break down into tiny pieces that can be eaten by marine creatures which mistake them for food. The particles accumulate and get passed up the food chain as smaller organisms are preyed on by larger ones, including humans.
Scottish campaigners have been working with industry to promote biodegradable alternatives. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Lidl, Waitrose, Boots and Johnson & Johnson have all agreed to switch away from plastic cotton buds.
The latest announcement comes in the same week a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetic products came into force in the UK and Westminster unveiled proposals for a 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable cups and an extension to the plastic carrier bag charge.