Small changes make a big difference

Switch the Stick campaign

There has been a surge of interest in plastic pollution since Blue Planet II was first broadcast at the end of November 2017. However, I want to highlight a successful campaign which was launched in 2016, before this significant increase in plastic publicity.

At the start of 2016, a not for profit campaigning organisation, City to Sea, launched the #SwitchtheStick campaign, urging retailers to swap plastic cotton bud sticks to paper1.

According to the Marine Conservation Society, plastic cotton bud sticks make up over 60% of all plastic sewage-related litter on our beaches and rivers. As they don’t biodegrade, they stay intact or break down into smaller pieces and can be eaten by birds, fish and other wildlife.

In the UK, millions of people flush plastic cotton buds (as well as wet wipes and sanitary products) down the toilet. Toilets are designed to only flush the three Ps – Pee, Poo and [toilet] Paper – but people flush other items because they either forget, don’t know or just don’t care.

Water and wastewater companies’ sewerage processes prevent many items from reaching the environment, but the size and shape of cotton buds means they can pass through filters. During heavy rainfall, sewers can overflow into waterways and rivers, meaning anything flushed down toilets can get washed out into waterways.

The ideal solution is for people to stop using the toilet as a ‘water bin’, however until only the three Ps are flushed, we can make a simple change and ‘switch the stick’ from plastic to paper.

City to Sea’s campaign achieved a step change in helping to tackle this particular plastic pollution problem:


The campaign was funded and supported by three water and wastewater companies – Thames Water, Wessex Water and Anglian Water. It was endorsed by former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and MEP Molly Scott-Cato, and gained public support through a petition on 38 Degrees2 (one of the UK’s biggest campaigning communities) which helped send a clear message and put pressure on the major UK retailers and manufacturers.

Raising awareness

The #SwitchtheStick campaign raised awareness of an important issue using a simple and catchy hashtag, as well as using a reliable source of shocking and interesting facts and statistics. It provided updates of campaign activity on social media and via its website, keeping followers motivated by informing them of progress, including:

  • Johnson & Johnson (which sells more cotton buds than any other brand in the UK) announcing its plans to “end production of all plastic stick cotton buds by the end of 2017” and replace them with paper sticks (posted in March 2016)
  • Waitrose becoming the first supermarket to change the stems of its cotton wool buds from plastic to paper (posted in July 2016)
  • City to Sea founder, Natalie Fee, meeting with representatives from the UK’s big retailers (posted in August 2016)
  • 150,000 people signing the petition and major retailers (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl, Superdrug, Boots UK and Wilko) agreeing to ‘Switch the Stick’ and sell only biodegradable paper stick buds by the end of 2017 (posted December 2016)

Power of imagery

I believe this is the most important component of any campaign, and the captivating pictures and videos of where the plastic sticks ultimately end up were interesting but shocking. People connect with images instantly and emotionally, and they can show you something words cannot. For instance, the image above taken by Justin Hofman shows a seahorse grasping a plastic cotton bud, clearly illustrating the ocean plastic problem – it was selected as a finalist in the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition3.

Small wins

The campaign aimed to address a massive environmental problem – that plastic cotton bud sticks made up 60% of the sewage-related litter on our beaches and rivers. Although this is caused by millions of people wrongly flushing them down the toilet, it would be extremely difficult/near impossible to educate and change the behaviour of millions of people. Water and wastewater companies already have their own campaigns to urge customers not to flush anything but the three Ps yet 30 tonnes of ‘unflushable’ material is removed from just one sewage treatment works in one day4. Instead this campaign aimed to make a significant difference by making a tiny change – paper sticks. Now, even if the cotton buds do get flushed, they are not as harmful to marine wildlife as they quickly biodegrade. Another small (but big) win is that this switch would stop over 478 tonnes of single-use, non-recyclable plastic being produced each year1.

Positive things to come

Following the successful #SwitchtheStick campaign, there has been a significant positive change to another common item that is wrongly flushed down the toilet. A new ‘Fine to Flush’ logo has been launched5 in January 2018 to show which wet wipes have passed rigorous scientific testing and can break up in the sewers, unlike most currently on the market which mix with cooking oil, grease and other unflushable items put down the drain and create thousands of blockages every year, with a sizeable proportion ending up in our rivers and oceans.

All these small changes will make a big difference.




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