Plastic Cotton buds

Plastic free cotton buds, Hooray! Maybe.

“Although we all know how bad it is to use cotton buds to clean our ears, we’re probably still going to do it because, well, it just feels so good!”

I’m still in the ‘using up’ phase of my zero waste journey. I’ve almost used up all of my old products in my toiletries bag but the one thing I still seem to have heaps of are cotton buds!!! Who knew buying in bulk to save money back then would prove to be such an ongoing flaw in my plan now.

I estimate that I still have around 200 cotton buds left to use up. I mainly use them to clean my ears and tidy up eye make-up and I’m really trying to find other uses for them but not having much luck. The plastic gods are laughing at me as I struggle to rid my life of these little plastic demons.




So, I’ve decided to keep fighting the good fight and seek out alternatives to the common plastic cotton bud.

Here’s what I’ve found –

1. Go bamboo – This company is known to sell a lot of bamboo based sustainable products including the bamboo toothbrush I have previously written about. These cotton buds are made from sustainably sourced bamboo with cotton tips and are packaged in a recycled cardboard box. They are completely plastic free and 100% biodegradable. When used just throw them in the compost or push them into your garden (or your neighbour’s garden).


Go Bamboo Cotton Buds


2. The ear spoon or ‘Mimi kaki’ in Japan – The ear spoon is a blunt metal stick with a tiny spoon like projection at one end. It is used to carefully scrape out any excess ear wax from the outer ear canal.

The effectiveness of this tool is likely to depend on the type of wax your ears produce. It turns out there are two types of wax, wet and dry. These spoons work best when used to clean out dry wax. The wax in my ear is definitely the wet type. So when I gave it a go, I felt it didn’t work quite as well as a regular cotton bud. I also felt I had more chance of doing damage to my ear if I got over excited but maybe that was just because I was used to using cotton buds and this felt different.


Ear Spoon


3. Natural ear flush remedies – The internet is overflowing with natural ear flush remedies and while they all sound above board, it’s probably a good idea to check with a healthcare professional before putting any fluids inside your ear.

A couple I found which sounded quite good were warm salt water and warm olive/almond oil. You only need a few drops of whichever one you choose, leave to soak for 10 minutes to loosen the excess ear wax, then drain and clean the outer part of your ear.


Olive oil for ear flush


Most people I speak to use cotton buds to clean their ears and although we all know how bad it is to use them for that purpose, we’re probably still going to do it because, well, it just feels so good! I’m not gonna lie, I was initially pretty happy to find out there are 100% biodegradable cotton buds available.




My research has taught me that some wax in the ear is actually a good thing though. It provides a protective barrier against things like dirt, fungus, bacteria and even insects. Conditions such as swimmers ear can actually be caused by not having enough wax in the ear to protect against exposure to water.

Now that I look back, the most times I’ve had problems with my ears is when I’m in humid, tropical environments and when I’m diving everyday for long periods of time. And it’s a real bummer when you’re having ear problems and can’t go diving.

When I’m in these conditions, I feel that I need to clean my ears more as they often feel itchy and almost heavy with wax and inevitably always become painful. Now after discovering that over-cleaning is actually causing a breakdown of the protective barrier and allowing all the nasties to get in and cause the problems; I’ve realised that I really need to relax my ear cleaning routine. No more getting the ol’ leg shake from a good ear clean for me.




A major downside to cotton buds I’ve found is how wasteful the process of making them is. It’s hard to imagine cotton as anything other than environmentally friendly as it’s a natural fibre. However, it turns out conventional cotton farming is not only bad for the environment but also the people working on the farms.


Cotton plant


Cotton is a very water intensive crop. It takes almost 4 litres of water to make one cotton bud (1). WHAT?! It takes around 20,000 litres to produce 1kg of cotton which is the equivalent to one t-shirt and one pair of jeans (2). That’s just crazy!! What’s even worse is that the majority of this water (73%) is sourced from rivers local to the crop land, degrading soil quality and drastically reducing the quantity of water in these rivers. One prime example is the Aral Lake in Central Asia. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, now has sadly almost dried up due to over-use.

Cotton is also a very chemical intensive crop. It takes up only 2.4% of the world’s agricultural land but accounts for 24% of the global sales of insecticides and 11% of pesticides (3). Not to mention all the chemicals used in bleaching, dying and finishing the cotton. These chemicals and pesticides are toxic to humans and put the workers on the cotton farms at risk every single day. They are also adversly affecting the environment with run-off polluting rivers and groundwater and no doubt eventually ending up in the oceans.

These are just two of the issues related to cotton production. I’ll list some further reading sources at the bottom of the page so you can learn about other issues including fertilisers, genetic modification and social impacts.




After learning all about the negative impacts of cotton farming, my elation about finding 100% biodegradable cotton buds very quicky deflated.

I did get in touch with Go Bamboo and unfortunately their cotton is not organically sourced and does come from a standard conventional farm. I have found one company online who do produce cotton buds with organic cotton and paper stems – MacDonald & Taylor from the UK. And you can purchase them from third party Australian websites, just search for Simply Gentle cotton buds.

But now I’m thinking – “Do I really need cotton buds in my life?”. I’m not going to be cleaning my ears the same way after learning that the wax is important. And maybe I should just get better at applying my eye make-up. Can’t be that hard (I hope). And it seems by buying the 100% biodegradable buds, I won’t personally be making any waste but the waste that occurs in the production stages is extreme.

So, I’ve decided to give up cotton buds for good. Once I’ve used up the 200 or so plastic buds I have left and then the 200 Go Bamboo biodegradable buds (another excited impulse purchase) I have sitting in my bathroom cupboard.


Plastic and bamboo cotton buds


If anyone needs any cotton buds, PLEASE hit me up.

Love Kat xx

Further reading material – 

1. Organic cotton

2. WWF

3. Business Ethics Magazine

4. Water Footprint



  • Ruth

    January 13, 2018

    I have been finding it hard to kick this habit as well. When I was reading about the alternative bamboo variety, I felt a sense of relief, so I’m glad you went on to point out that we also need to consider the manufacturing process. I have a bit of a stash but now intend to ween myself of this, as you have pointed out, unnecessary habit.

    • Kat

      January 25, 2018

      Hi Ruth, I know what you mean! Since writing this post last year, I still have the same box of bamboo cotton buds! I’ve cut down my habit of using them drastically and to the point that I still carry this box around with me haha. But every now and then I do use one and then pop it into the ground to biodegrade. When this box is finally finished, I’ve made a pledge, never to use a cotton bud again 😀


    July 1, 2018

    Thank you for posting this Kat.
    So awesomely helpful! I too have a bag of plastic buds I bought at my local dollar store.
    What I do is tweeze the cotton bud off of the plastic stem and put the cotton bud in the paper and cotton into the biodegeabale bag which I purchase that are biodegradable at my local Sprouts Market. Ralph’s also Carrie’s biodegradable kitchen bags for the Kitchen “trash” bin. I use the small kitchen biodegradable bags for my bathroom wastebasket.
    I love learning about the ear spoon or “Mimi kaki” definitely going to invest in this for no more plastic cotton buds. Thank you for posting this great educational on plastic free cotton buds, much appreciated.


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