Cotton buds made by the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson will no longer have plastic handles to prevent toxic waste reaching waterways and seas.

Plastic cotton buds are the number one item of plastic, sewage-related debris found on beaches and rivers.

The switch to paper handles began on Monday, and the new products will be on shop shelves within the coming weeks. Johnson & Johnson said it will prevent tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic reaching the seas.

Niamh Finan, Group Marketing Manager, "We recognise that our products have an environmental footprint, and that's why we're working hard to continually improve and champion best practice in sustainability, in line with our company's founding principles."

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A spokeswoman for the Ministry for the Environment commended Johnson & Johnson for the decision.

"It is great to see industry taking active steps to reduce the amount of plastics in their products. Recently the government announced consultation to regulate the manufacture and sale of plastic microbeads in personal care products in New Zealand because of the harm they cause when released into aquatic environments. Johnson & Johnson's decision to remove PVC from its products is a great example of industry actively responding to a global issue without the need for regulation and we are very supportive of this," she said.

The change came following a campaign by Scottish environmentalists Fidra, who have been calling for companies to switch to paper stems since 2013.

Dr Clare Cavers, Research Officer, Fidra, said: "We commend Johnson & Johnson for leading this change in product material, it is an important part of the solution to the growing problem of plastic pollution in our seas.

"A step change in consumer behaviour is needed to ensure people dispose of waste responsibly and only flush toilet paper."

Each year more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally, and 10 per cent will end up in the sea.

It is estimated that there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish by 2050.

- With the Telegraph.