Time to turn the tide

We invited guest blogger, Natalie Fee, to tell us why we should switch the stick

Cotton buds were a massive bug-bear of mine. Each beach clean of the Avon Gorge would haul in between 500-700 plastic sticks from one 450m stretch of riverbank – it’s so shocking to see!

To me it was just a massive no-brainer, they really didn’t need to be made out of plastic. Unlike plastic bottles or food packaging – cotton buds could easily be switched to paper and not lose any functionality. Customers wouldn’t notice a difference, but nature would. So I set about creating Switch the Stick.

Switch the stick

Natalie Fee collecting her award for environmental justice

I went to the UK’s water companies for funding, as I knew the buds were also causing a problem in sewers where they act as ‘scaffolding’ for all the wipes and fats, oils and greases that people are flushing or pouring down their sink.

As well as causing sewer blockages, the buds are escaping sewer filters, which is why we see so many of them along our coastlines and riverbanks. Getting people to stop flushing would be a positive step, but after thinking through the problem with my team at City to Sea we decided the best way was to stop the problem at source.

Switch the stick

City to Sea team on location with the One-Show’s Lucy Siegle

Wessex Water, Anglian Water and Thames Water were the most forward-thinking of our wastewater treatment companies and they kindly funded our work. The rest was very fast-paced. We spoke to Fidra, a Scottish charity who were also working on the issue directly with retailers, but they didn’t want to run a public-facing campaign. So we launched our petition in September 2016, partnered with 38 Degrees ‘Campaigns by You’ and within two months had gathered over 155,000 signatures on the petition.

That’s when the retailers started to sit up and take notice. First Tesco, then Sainsbury’s, then ASDA – until all nine major retailers had come on board. The move to paper cotton buds will stop over 320 tonnes of single-use plastic from being produced each year, and that’s not including Johnson & Johnson, Boots or Superdrug – so that figure’s probably twice as high!

As well as stopping plastic pollution at source, the campaign reached hundreds of thousands of people with the message that only pee, paper and poo goes down the loo. So we’re happy that even if people didn’t sign the petition, the message was getting through that plastics shouldn’t be flushed. Next up for ‘Unflushables’, we’re focusing on wipes and disposable sanitary products – as many of these contain plastic fibres and millions of people are in the dark about it.

Switch the stick

Switch the stick campaign

The Switch the Stick campaign will be profiled on The One Show on BBC1 tonight at 7pm. To find out more about City to Sea and their campaigns, visit www.citytosea.org.uk.

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