Paper cotton swabs: Are they really as eco-friendly as we think they are?

It’s safe to say that the global campaign against the use of plastic single use items reached new heights in the last couple of years, with many companies and end-consumers choosing to replace plastic items for alternatives produced from paper. But are paper single use items like paper cotton swabs really the environmentally responsible alternative they claim to be?

If we look at the pros for paper cotton buds, it can be concluded that whereas plastic is sturdy, paper is much more flexible. This means that if a paper swab makes its way to the ocean, it’s much less likely to harm marine animals. It’s also much more likely to biodegrade, or at least disintegrate, over time — whereas plastic cotton buds will be with us forever. 

Sadly though, beyond the pro mentioned above, paper swabs really aren’t much more environmentally friendly than plastic swabs. In fact, it is possible that they’re actually even worse for the environment. We might think of paper as a material which can be recycled easily, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Paper only composts naturally with a temperature of 55 degrees Celsius. This means that it still ends up in an fire oven to biodegrade fully, as EU regulations state that items which do not compost naturally within 45 days get biodegraded with machinery.

Of course, it isn’t only about where the swab goes to at the end of its life. Paper is also a pretty resource intensive to produce. Paper cotton buds are made from trees, which can make it seem like a good choice environmentally, as trees are a renewable source. However, they’re also an incredibly valuable source as they absorb carbon dioxide emissions we humans produce, 33% of the carbon dioxide we produce to be exact. That is exactly the reason shouldn’t be cutting them down and using them up for anything other than an incredibly good reason. Cotton swabs aren’t an essential product to cut trees for, especially when there are other, much better, plastic free solutions out there.

What’s more, the term “biodegradable” may be misleading. Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department’s “Biodegradability Testing Guideline” tested how well different materials break down by keeping them at a constant temperature of between 56 and 60 degrees Celsius for 180 days. If the carbon matter of that material decreases by 60 per cent, it can be considered biodegradable. In the real world, this means that so-called “biodegradable materials” could be around for a lot longer than 180 days without even disappearing completely. Like stated above, this means that in Europe, paper items still end up being biodegraded with the help of a fire oven.

What Should We Do About Paper cotton swabs?
In conclusion, just because some people have switches to paper cotton buds, that doesn’t mean that they are eco-friendly or that you should use them. It’s clear to state that even though plastic swabs are more harmful to the environment, in the end, paper swabs still have large environmental consequences, and are definitely not eco-friendly. For the most part, they are still a single-use waste item.