In many consumer items today there is a disconnect between for how long a product is used and how long it lasts. There are products that are used for only a very short time period, seconds in the extreme, that are thrown away after this one time use. In contrast to their very short period of functionality, they are made from materials that last significantly longer than they are actually needed for, some of these materials are not only long lasting, but also unhealthy, poisonous, dangerous for wildlife. Secondly, there are products that are bought with the intention of owning them for a long period of time, but that fail earlier than desired and have to be repaired or replaced.
On the 22nd of October 2015 I went to Tilbury to clean up the Thames Estuary path together with Thames 21, a waterway charity looking after rivers, canals and ponds in Greater London monitoring and cleaning them. Nearing the end of our clean-up, I discovered the main reason we came there: large amounts of plastic sticks remaining from cotton buds scattered on the shore of the Thames. A fellow volunteer told me that these are a big problem as they endanger birds that mistake them for food, eat them and eventually die. Cotton buds often are wrongly disposed by their users that conveniently throw them into the toilet after having used them in the bathroom. During sewage overflows these plastic sticks, floating at the top of the water due to their lightness, end up in the Thames and its shore.
Looking closer at the cotton bud packaging it is noticeable that they do have a tiny label advising to bin cotton buds and not flush them. However, the label is miniscule and the toilet is a really convenient bin in the bathroom. Environmentally friendly cotton buds, made of rolled paper or bamboo do exist, but are not as widely spread as and more expensive than their plastic cousins.
So if birds eat the cotton bud sticks, why not make the sticks edible for birds?
As an experiment I made some cotton bud sticks out of seeds, oats, flour, honey and water making them both degradable in the compost bin and edible.
Another, more logical idea, that emerged in conversation about these is making the cotton buds dissolvable in sewage water, so that they simply disappear rather than blocking the sewage system or contaminating the rivers.
Why are one-time use products made of permanent materials?