Cotton swab sticks – the surprising discovery of our brand audit
This was the second brand audit for Latvia. This year, we selected Daugavgriva, a beach that was identified as the second most contaminated beach in Latvia based on the number of waste units per square meter. After the cleanup, we collected the results and decided that this year, instead of focusing on cans and bottles, where results were similar to the ones from previous years (basically, local beer producers are the ones producing majority of bottles and cans found on the beach), another object deserved our attention–cotton swabs.
In a bit over an hour, we had collected more than 600 of these tiny pieces of plastic, and this result was surprising, as this was not a normal occurrence in other beaches. We discussed our results with the organization doing the beach waste statistics, and they confirmed that one of the reasons why the result of this beach was so high was exactly these swabs. So this was not a specific occasion, but, unfortunately, a normal result in this beach.
This beach is located next to the Daugava’s (the biggest river in Latvia) entrance to the sea, the local wastewater treatment center, and the passenger port. We contacted the local wastewater treatment plant, and they confirmed that cotton swabs are an issue. Many people throw them in the toilets and it is hard to filter them due to their size and weight–they pass through the filters and then flow above the water surface.
However, some years ago they improved their system, adding additional filters, partly precisely because of the swabs. Two of our biggest television stations asked our opinion on the topic and visited the water treatment center. The video material they provided showed a lot of cotton swabs in the residue produced during purification processes. We are organizing an excursion to this water treatment center in two weeks to learn about their improvements.
We do not know if these swabs come from the ferries, if the river brings them from places where a water treatment system has not solved this problem yet, or if they come from Riga as a result of cases of water treatment system overcharging due to heavy rains. One indication of the source of the sticks might be their color–even if most of them are white, some of them are blue, a color that has not been observed in local shops.
We have received messages from people stating that they did not know that cotton swabs are an issue, and will not throw them in toilets anymore, so this year’s brand audit definitely raised people’s awareness. On the other hand, we are glad to remind people that in 2021 it will not be possible to buy cotton swabs made from plastic in the EU. It will be interesting to see if this law manages to reduce the contamination in the beaches in Daugavgriva and in other EU beaches.
Mairita Luse is a Zero Waste Latvia board member and zero waste activist.