Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical and personal care multinational, have recently announced that they will no longer manufacture plastic cotton buds, replacing them with more sustainable alternatives made out of paper.

Plastic cotton buds take hundreds of years to degrade and their small size means marine life may ingest them, causing damage to the species both physically and through the toxins released from the plastic itself or absorbed from the environment. Plastic cotton buds should be disposed of in the trash, though many consumers incorrectly flush these plastic cotton buds down the toilet, completely unaware that the structure of the plastic stem allows them to pass the sewage treatment system and be deposited in the sea.

Until recently, the environmental damage caused by these products has been ignored by businesses, despite efforts from institutions such as Fidra, a Scottish environmental charity who have been raising awareness of these issues since their establishment in May 2014. Johnson & Johnson are now recognizing their environmental footprint and this change from plastic to paper shows that the company is embracing their environmental responsibility, joining the fight against the growing issue of plastic pollution in our seas. Though it is just a small victory within the wider issue of marine pollution, it should inspire fellow cotton bud producers to follow suit to remain competitive in the market.  In fact, the supermarket retailer Sainsbury’s has said they are planning to introduce 100 percent plastic-free cotton buds later this year.

Though, this plastic to paper change should inspire more than just other cotton bud producers, it has the potential to spark a movement away from plastic product components towards more sustainable alternatives across all relevant industries. Producers often associate more sustainable operations with greater production costs and, though this may be true in the short term, in the long term companies will profit from an enhanced reputation brought about by their environmental commitments – shoppers often value these types of strategy which is evidenced in GlobalData’s consumer research in that 75 percent of global consumers believe living an ethical or sustainable lifestyle is important in creating a feeling of wellbeing.

Consumers are becoming more sustainability-conscious and the sooner companies adapt their operations accordingly, the greater the potential gains. Where possible, producers should look to make the first move to ensure that sustainable efforts are not seen as reactive and image based – though Johnson & Johnson’s shift to sustainable cotton buds was met with praise, the transition was long overdue.

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