Sainsbury’s becomes first retailer to commit to 100% plastic-free cotton buds

Sainsbury's has today (22 February) become the first British retailer to publicly commit to the complete removal of plastic from its cotton buds, as the supermarket group aims to replace the current sticks with a fully biodegradable option by the end of 2017.

Sainsbury’s had previously announced plans to remove plastic stems in the products, but this new commitment announced today (22 February) refers to the introduction of a new biodegradable adhesive, which holds the cotton bud to the stem.

The supermarket chain is currently in talks to find a new formula and, crucially, it has pledged to share this forumla with other retailers to encourage a switch to plastic-free cotton buds across the sector. Other retailers including Tesco, Waitrose and Johnson and Johnson have made assurances to ban plastic from the stems of cotton buds, amid a public campaign that now has more than 150,000 backers.

Sainsbury’s brand director Judith Batchelar said: “We’re always looking for ways to make our products more sustainable and switching to a biodegradable adhesive to our own brand cotton buds is a great example furthering our promise to remove the plastic stems.

“Openness and sharing within the industry is going to be key in driving the uptake of sustainable choices, which is why we are committed to share the new biodegradable glue once it’s developed. This is more than making a competitive product, it’s doing what’s fundamentally right for the environment.”

Sustainable thinking

Cotton bud sticks are the most common litter from toilets flushed on to the country’s beaches, as consumers flush them down the toilet rather than disposing of them in household waste. A recent Marine Conservation Society (MSC) report found that the number of sticks found on UK beaches had doubled since 2012, from an average of 11 to 24 for every 100 metres.

Sainsbury’s sells more than 300 million own-brand cotton buds each year, and expects the revised products to remove over 50 tonnes of plastic from production. 

Commenting on the Sainsbury’s pledge, environmental charity Fidra research officer Dr Clare Cavers said: “Cotton buds should always be bagged and binned but we know that many people still flush them away. Education is key and these changes from Sainsbury’s will have a huge impact on marine health, especially with their pledge to share the revised formula with competitors. It’s great to see this sustainable way of thinking continuing to prevail.”

Plastics revolution

With around five trillion pieces of plastic estimated to be floating in the world’s seas, the retailers are starting to make concerted efforts to tackle the pertinent issue of marine plastic pollution. Between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe per year. In response, almost all of Britain’s major retailers have pledged to phase out harmful microbeads from their own-brand cosmetic and beauty products.

Following demands for a sector-wide ban from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the Government has set out plans to remove microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products by October 2017.

It is hoped the ban will have a similar impact to the successful introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge, which has nearly cut the number of bags found on beaches by half. The number of plastic shopping bags handed out by retailers in England dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months, following the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge in October 2015. The carrier bag charge represents something of a CSR success story, with retailers now using the profits gained from the charge to boost a number of in social development projects.

George Ogleby

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