In the average woman’s lifetime, as a regular tampon user, she will buy more than 11,000 tampons. Also, it’s estimated that 2.5 million tampons are flushed down the toilet every day, in addition to sanitary towels and panty liners.
I was on Vancouver Island a few weeks ago and went to Canada’s first collect and release aquarium in Ucluelet, BC. With Marine Biologists on staff, they’re excited to share their love for sea life. It’s got this cool, down to earth (or sea floor) non-profit vibe where you’re encouraged to touch the starfish, sea urchins, etc. in the tanks.
At one point, I headed off to the bathroom and was struck by a custom drawn “Travels with Tampons” poster, keeping it real by showing each part of a tampon (wrapping, applicator, and “absorbent thing”), then breaking it down:
Q: Can I flush it?
Q: What if I flush it anyway?
Enter bendy pipes, multiple points where it can and will eventually get stuck, and repercussions of sewage, stinky basements and nothing anyone wants to deal with. It made me wonder: is it only the Ucluelet Aquarium’s sewage system? I’ve seen other places with less creative (and more shouty) signage, but a lot of places with no signs. Is the piping really that different from one toilet to another?
One way or another, Tampons are headed for the dump.
Proctor and Gamble (creators of Tampax) state: “No, our tampons are not flushable. All used tampons, applicators or wrappers should be disposed of with your household waste. You should never flush them down the toilet.” Playtex agrees: “It’s best to simply wrap a used tampon in toilet paper and toss it in the garbage […] And of course, don’t ever flush a plastic applicator down the toilet.”
The best possible expertise on flushing is going to come from a plumber, not a manufacturer. SuperTerry has seen the real deal, the down and dirty of sewer lines getting clogged. He points out that tampons are made to be durable, and to expand when absorbing liquid. So, by design, putting a durable, hyper-absorbent and expanding product in a sewer line is a losing battle.
What’s more, Super Terry points out that in the best case scenario, if they do make it to the water treatment centre and don’t clog your pipes, the tampons are still probably going to be filtered out and sent… you guessed it! To the DUMP!
Looking Deeper into Sewer Systems
Treating toilets like a garbage can is having a huge impact on municipalities. “Defining Flushability for Sewer Use” from Ryerson University calculates that unblocking sewer systems cost cities across Canada a cumulative total of as much as $250 MILLION per year. Really? Because we haven’t grasped the concept of #1, #2 and toilet paper in toilets?
The research also analyses all of the items that are marketed as flushable, to see how they actually function in the sewers. Spoiler alert: “flushable” is a lie on all counts, including all sanitary napkins, tampons, and wet wipes. Even if the labeling on the packaging says flushable, the report states that marketers have indeed ‘mislabelled’ the products.
The perception of “flushable” comes back to get us when it becomes “floatable waste” on our beaches. In August 2018, volunteers tracking waste in Toronto’s harbourfront had to photograph “floatable waste” (condoms, tampons, syringes, wet wipes, etc) in the water instead of counting it – because there was simply too much to count. How did floatable waste get into the same body of water as summer camps and families? Due to extreme rainfall, the sewage system overflowed.
“But I buy biodegradable!”
There are plenty of benefits to buying organic cotton and biodegradable products: they avoid needless dioxins, pesticides and fragrances from literally being inserted into your body, and the manufacturing process is friendlier to the ecosystem. Biodegradable is not synonymous with flushable. Although biodegradable tampons do decompose faster, it will still take at least 6 months, whereas toilet paper takes minutes to dissolve.
After use, either compost or bin biodegradable tampons.
Alternatives to Tampons
Regardless of whether or not the sanitary products you use are biodegradable or organic cotton, they are still single use items. According to The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the average woman in the United States that “uses tampons monthly will buy more than 11,000 in her lifetime.” Yikes!
Fortunately, there are an incredible number of reusable options that are actually really comfortable, cheap(er), and practical. Best of all, reusable pads/cups are always “in stock”- AT HOME!
Reusable pads are increasingly popular, and DIY-ers can make their own with simple snaps on the wings, and sell them locally. Super comfortable, they absorb period blood just like any pad would, and then you can rinse it in cold water and throw in the washing machine. Re-useable pads also come built into panties (check out Canadian company Thinx).
Menstrual cups are also steadily increasing in popularity and for so many reasons. Think about it:
- Cheaper: (one cup can cost from 40$ to 80$) and last at least one year. No more panic runs to the drug store!
- Simpler: Sourced from companies like diva cup, moon cup, saalt, you can find out which is a sustainable option for you and the environment. Cups catch your blood rather than absorb it, giving you time to pour blood out and rinse the cup.
- Comfortable: Designed to move with your body, you can wear them while sleeping, and with no risk of toxic shock syndrome!
Re-usable alternatives to disposable tampons and pads mean that you get more “intimate” with your period: in order for it to be re-used, it must be rinsed and washed. So, first and foremost, accept that your period is awesome. It is not a vial of blue liquid poured on a pad in a commercial. It’s blood, and that’s bloody fabulous.
Bottom Line: You’re Not Gross.
Does the tendency of flushing tampons have to do with period shame? With new books like Heavy Flow, She-Ology, and fantastic videos on how we are cyclical beings, let’s learn to tap into this flow-state by learning about ourselves and supporting the environment.
No need to blush about deciding not to flush!