To Flush or Not to Flush
How do you discard your menstrual products?
The Hard Truth
The variety of menstrual products is endless, and unfortunately, most of the products available at the store are single-use. The menstrual pad is made of 90% plastic, and 6% of a tampon is plastic. So, what does this mean for the environment? The Environmental Committee of the London Assembly (2018) calculated that:
"The average menstruator throws away up to 200 kg of menstrual products in a lifetime."
Where do these products go?
According to Zero Waste Europe (Cabrera et al., 2019): single-use menstrual products are part of the 6.2% of single-use plastic waste collected on British beaches and 5% of floating garbage on the Catalan coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In Britain alone, nearly 1.5-2 billion menstrual items are flushed down toilets each year! Additionally, about 20 billion menstrual products in North America end up in landfills yearly (Shreya, 2016).
Flushing menstrual products have a significant negative impact on the environment. To ensure this was stated clearly, never flush pads and tampons down the toilet! The tampon has very absorbent materials which expand when in contact with liquids (such as its intended use to absorb blood). Therefore, when flushed, these products tangle in plumbing pipes and get saturated with fluid causing them to lodge into your plumbing. Let alone its costly consequences of fixing, and it becomes a severe health hazard if sewage backflows into your home.
Now let's say you got lucky, and it gets past home plumbing; what then? The damage doesn't end there. Menstrual products can clog your hometown's sewer system, increasing the risk of sewage overflowing into streets, basements, and local waterways (Kaur, 2018). In any water body receiving these products, such as the sea, menstrual items cause pollution, beach litter, and aquatic toxicity, which marine organisms ingest (Vilabrille Paz et al., 2020). Higher energy use for wastewater treatment is required to manage and treat its environmental impact.
The Role of Society
Why aren't we changing our habits if flushing menstrual products are detrimental to the environment and if it's such an easy switch? The answer to the continuation of tampon landfills and sanitary product-polluted oceans is the lack of public awareness and education. The Global Sustainability Institute (2019) tested this exact dilemma. In this experiment, participants were tested on their level of understanding and had them self-report their level of awareness. They found that 43.3% claimed to be 'very aware,' 42.7% claimed to be 'somewhat aware,' and 14% reported that they have 'not previously considered the environmental impact of menstrual products.' Findings show an evident 'split between the participants who were aware that tampons should not be flushed, and those who were surprised to find out that they should not have been flushing them.' This finding was substantiated through the clear 'unknown unknowns' results, even for those who believed their awareness was high. An example of this was among those who reported a heightened awareness of environmental impact:
39% did not know that non-organic tampons can contain plastic.
64% did not realize that organic tampons do not have plastic.
85% did not know organic menstrual products could be composted.
The study's results indicate that the level of awareness of environmental impact affects menstrual product choices. The study emphasizes the pressing need for proper awakening in the education system. Change can only begin if society prioritizes educating people about the reasons for not flushing tampons and how to dispose of them properly.
What needs to change?
Another possibility that I want to raise attention to is period shame's role in flushing menstrual products away.
Before stumbling onto reusable menstrual products, I was a pledged tampon user. At that time, believing that menstrual blood is "dirty," flushing it away appeared to be the simplest and fastest solution to hide the evidence of being a menstruator!!!
There is constantly a lurking feeling of being unhygienic during menstruation. Negative messages perpetuated through religion, society, and culture push this mentality into the forefront of period stigmatization, spreading the foundation of shame. Having a period, something that most women experience, somehow became a beacon for being impure.
For this very reason, it must be considered that, as a consequence of period shame, women would prefer to discard their menstrual products as out of sight as possible. By flushing products down the toilet, there is no evidence of being a menstruator. History shows that menstruation and discretion have been in alliance for all of time. Personal hygiene takes advantage of period shame and uses it as a main marketing tactic. Compact tampon applicators, fragranced products, menstrual product cases, weird and unnecessary creams, and even the invention of the tampon applicator originated from avoiding being in contact with a woman's so-called "messiness."
Continuing with the Global Sustainability Institute's (2019) findings, the best way to improve public awareness and reframe negative perceptions of menstruation is through embedding this knowledge into school curriculums, public awareness campaigns, better labeling on products, and changes in legislation.
Cabrera, A., & Garcia, R. (2019). The environmental & economic costs of single-use menstrual products, baby nappies & wet wipes: investigating the impact of these single-use items across Europe. ZWE, Wien. plastics_unflushables_-_submited_evidence.pdf (london.gov.uk) Plastic periods: menstrual products and plastic pollution | Friends of the Earth Should You Flush Tampons? (healthline.com)
Kaur, R., Kaur, K., & Kaur, R. (2018). Menstrual hygiene, management, and waste disposal: practices and challenges faced by girls/women of developing countries. Journal of environmental and public health, 2018.
Peberdy, E., Jones, A., & Green, D. (2019). A study into public awareness of the environmental impact of menstrual products and product choice. Sustainability, 11(2), 473.
Shreya (2016). The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products. Technology and Operations Management. https://d3.harvard.edu/platform-rctom/submission/the-ecological-impact-of-feminine-hygiene-products/
Single-use plastic: unflushables | London City Hall. (2018). Www.london.gov.uk. https://www.london.gov.uk/who-we-are/what-london-assembly-does/london-assembly-publications/single-use-plastic-unflushables
Vilabrille Paz, C., Ciroth, A., Mitra, A., Birnbach, M. and Wunsch, N. (2020) Comparitive Life Cycle Assessment of Menstrual Products. Greendelta GMBH, Commissionaed by Einhorn Products GMBH