The Environmental Impact of Flushing Tampons Down The Toilet

As a regular reader of the blog, Jo Greene, from a family run Kent based business called VR-Sani Co, wanted to share some of her expertise about the not often talked about plastic that ends up in the sea – tampons.

———————————————————————————————————————–

After years of procrastination, it seems that we’re finally starting to tackle the global issue of plastic pollution. No doubt encouraged by Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II that horrified much of the UK, supermarkets, governments and society as a whole are starting to take measurable steps in order to reduce the amount of plastics we use.

At the heart of the topic has been the humble plastic bag, a symbol for change that has served as a stark reminder that our preference for ease and convenience often comes with a heavy price. Images of turtles, seabirds, and other marine life caught in the aftermath of our weekly shop have helped shine an uncomfortable light on our actions.

The hope is that through education and awareness, the simple act of reusing our bags will make a tangible difference to the amount of plastic that ends up our seas. But while this is a good first step, it opens the debate as to what else we need to consider.

The conversation has naturally extended to our use of water bottles, coffee cups, and even some of the more obscure products we use on a daily basis, including the small plastic beads found in a number of facial scrubs. However it is surprising that the disposal of tampons and their environmental impact hasn’t fully entered into the public consciousness in quite the same way.

The equivalent of flushing a plastic bag down the toilet

On the surface at least, what we do with our tampons may not seem like a pressing concern. After all they’re fluffy, small, and if we “accidentally” flush one down the toilet it probably just dissolves into harmless mulch of eco-friendly nothingness. But tampons, pads and panty liners generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year in the UK alone, and the alarming statistic is that nearly all of them contain plastic. The impact of flushing our tampons down the toilet, while convenient, can have unexpected and often dire consequences, particularly on our beaches and in our seas.

In an attempt to save the hundreds of species from accidentally eating or becoming entangled in the litter strewn across our coastlines, the Marine Conservation Society held a beach cleanup in 2016. During their efforts they found 20 tampons and sanitary items for every 100 metres of shoreline. It’s a significant figure, and overall they estimate that between 1.5bn to 2bn sanitary items are flushed down Britain’s toilets every year.

One of the challenges is that people can often assume that sanitary products flushed down the toilet will be picked up and extracted via the local sewage system. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, and they’re not always effectively filtered. As a result sewage-related debris ends up contributing to about 6% of the litter found on Britain’s beaches.

Changing attitudes to reverse the trend

It’s obvious that we must try and reverse this trend, but in order to openly discuss the practical steps that we as a society need to take, we firstly need to address the topic of menstruation without the fear of stigmatisation or disgust. Yes bleeding and cramps aren’t always topics generally considered apt for polite conversation, but that doesn’t mean menstruation needs to be shrouded in secrecy. The topic of periods and tampons may still be a relatively taboo subject, but by avoiding the subject entirely, we’re helping to fuel a huge environmental issue.

Many skeptics would say that this cultural taboo has, at least in part, helped the disposable feminine hygiene industry to thrive. It’s argued that clever advertising messages and a failure to clearly disclose important product information from major feminine hygiene product brands might be responsible for holding women back from disposing of tampons safety, or even considering more environmentally friendly options.

These alternative products, from reusable menstrual cups to organic cotton tampons, could help to support the use of more sustainable alternatives to conventional sanitary products. What’s interesting however is that many of these products have already been on the market for years. Their success (or lack of it) have been hampered by the popular business model that’s predicated on disposability, viewed by most brands as the more attractive option in order to drive repeat purchases.

As a result tampons have been marketed aggressively over the years, purporting the benefits of hygiene and convenience as their primary advantages. In the ever increasing quest for profits, it was always unlikely that companies would embrace a reusable, yet more environmentally friendly product line.

Marketing messages based on profit

Compounding the challenge is that tampons aren’t technically classified as medical products, and as such, companies don’t have to provide detailed product information. However, many of the modern materials used in their production derive from the petroleum industry. The potential environmental impact of these materials finding their way into a delicate ecosystem is unfortunately all too easy to predict.

Against this backdrop, it’s also easy to see why many women feel that it’s ok to flush tampons down the toilet. Anything classified as “disposable” automatically invokes a throwaway attitude, and similar products like wet wipes are often touted as flushable, even when they’re not. From a marketing perspective, it’s probably fair to say that not many people would buy a wet wipe if their strapline was “feel fresh and stick a soiled piece of cloth in your bathroom bin”.

The unfortunate reality is that unhelpful marketing messages have often encouraged us to put convenience above legitimate environmental concerns, but this isn’t impossible to overcome. Critically, we simply need the accurate labeling of products with disposal information, and to take note as a consumer whenever we purchase a sanitary product.

For example, biodegradable 100% cotton tampons are a much greener choice than standard products, but they still can’t be flushed down the toilet. Seeking the more eco-friendly products is always a great start, but typically most products will still need to be disposed of in a sanitary bin.

However relaying this message to wider sections of society has always been a little more challenging. Until we can all overcome our squeamishness towards menstruation, it’s always going to be difficult to discuss any period-related issue without it being viewed as an icky topic. Without doubt, the silence and stigma around menstrual bleeding remains a significant cultural barrier to successfully addressing and discussing a variety of important issues.

But public attitude has undoubtedly turned against disposable plastics; we simply need to be aware of where they exist in our daily lives, and for manufacturers and marketers to be more open and honest in their messaging. If we can all work together, we can help to turn off the tap of throwaway packaging once and for all.

———————————————————————————————————————–

This post was written by Jo Greene of VR Sani-Co. An established family business that has been providing washroom services and sanitary bins in Kent and Sussex for over 20 years.

Resolutions or not…this really is the right time to ditch the plastic in your life!

Is it just me or is there a large amount of news content about plastic recently?

Whether it is the disturbing sight of plastic bottles ruining the immersion of being in the deep blue as David Attenborough lulled you to sleep on a Sunday night with the incredible Blue Planet 2; the news that China will no longer take our recycled plastic due to pollution concerns; or yesterdays ban of Micro-beads coming into full affect; it seems plastic has finally fallen out of favour.

 

So with it being the new year why not add a truely transformative resolution to your list. Ditch the plastic.

A simple way to do this is to start with any single use plastic that is entirely unnecessary. Do you need that straw in your drink? If Weatherspoons and Jamie Oliver can ditch them for good, so can you! Can Tupperware serve you better than clingfilm? Does your coffee really taste as good out of that disposable?

There are so many things in our everyday life that create rubbish after just one use but with a few simple changes you could do away with single use plastic for good. It will definitely save you money, especially if the government decide to tax all single use plastics such as plastic bottles and the so called ‘latte levy’ which could reduce the 2.5 billion coffee cups we get through in the UK, of which only 1% are recycled.

If you would like to be part of the movement to ditch single use plastic head on over to the Global Good Award’s #pointlessplastic on Twitter to get some inspiration.

How Can We Reduce the Environmental Impact of International Industry?

Today we have a guest post from Justin Fox, a graduate of the University of Kent, having studied History here from 2012-2015.

Using the analytical skills he developed during his time here, he now works as a writer within numerous fields, from environmental affairs to politics. Always interested in current affairs and keen to give something back to the University, he saw the launch of the new blog as an opportunity not to be missed!

……..

As the threat of irreversible climate change draws ever nearer, humanities collective need to tackle the effects of pollution and global warming has never been more necessary. Achieving a sustainable solution to the Earth’s environmental issues is paramount if we wish to continue with our current rate of consumption, and a failure to address key issues affecting the planet is simply not an option looking forward.

Out of all of the various sources of pollutant gases, commercial industry is one of the most notorious contributors. The scale of transport related carbon emissions caused as byproducts of such production is truly shocking, and the statistics tell a similar story. A Chinese study has recently concluded that approximately 22% of early deaths caused by air pollution come about due to production of ‘products destined for a foreign market’. Whilst it would be unfair to make a sweeping statement and say that no action is being taken by corporate giants to reduce their carbon footprint, there is still more work that needs to be done.

Consumer Spending

Arguably, the best place from which to affect change is from the perspective of us as consumers, whose wallets carry significant influence. Quite simply by choosing to purchase more from those companies with a more conscientious environmental agenda, hopefully that can galvanize those who don’t at present into taking action. For example, in the takeaway drinks industry, there are massive problems with disposable coffee cups ending up as rubbish as large chains fail to provide the facilities for the recycling of these cups to take place. Some however have begun to sell reusable alternative cups which whilst a start, seems to be shifting responsibility from supplier to customer, when it should be more of a joint effort between parties.

On the other hand, businesses such as Lush have carved out a niche within the cosmetics industry using sustainability as their unique selling point, to the extent that they can charge more than their rivals and still enjoy a reputation as a top quality brand. More and more young people in particular have been found to take considerate policies such as these into account, so it’s far from the case that cheaper automatically equates to better selling goods.

This culture of sustainability of course though should not be contained within just the one industry, and can be applied to nearly any other, from clothes to car buying. Whilst they tend to be somewhat costlier, environmentally responsible goods are the gateway to getting such ideals to go mainstream, and to affect real change at the top of the business world.

Cut Down on Plastic Usage

Despite being crucial in countless products, there are various forms of plastics that have a terrible effect on the environment, and on wildlife in particular. We’ve all seen the horrific images of animals stuck in various bits of thrown away garbage and aquatic life choking on smaller items, and each case is another argument why more must be done to amend our current ways. Microbeads in particular are notorious, which damage marine life tremendously despite being so minute.

To reduce the scope of this issue, we quite simply need to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume. There’s so much that gets tossed away needlessly, such as with bottled water-roughly 176 billion bottles every year will need disposing of despite it being a resource available (in the developed world at least) from literally any tap. A lot of work needs to be done to restore the world’s oceans and seas, and taking control of the plastic problem is a key element of most plans to do so.

If the usage of plastic is unavoidable however, it’s vital that the adequate facilities are in place to allow for the recycling of the material and that the public is made aware of what forms of plastic can be recycled and what can’t. All too often, recyclable material is instead sent to landfill due to contamination, as well-meaning people have made a mistake and put non-recyclable items in with them. Going forward though the ideal scenario would be for biodegradable plastics to become standard usage in all walks of life, as part of a transition towards 100% recyclable plastics in all forms. Water is quite literally the planet’s lifeblood, and ensuring its security should be one of our highest priorities going forward.

Buying Local

Something that often flies under the radar when discussing environmental practices is the significance of local produce. Typically part of the debate around organic farming and ‘food miles’, by buying local goods, small-scale businesses can profit- businesses that often rely on traditional methods of production which are less environmentally damaging.

The close proximity between producer and buyer also cuts down on transport emissions, which as we discussed earlier is a major cause of air pollution. Getting even a small amount of long-haul lorries off of the roads can only be a good thing, but these local producers rely on the loyalty of their market to survive. Against larger competition who can offer a wider variety of services, it is once more up to us the customer if we are willing to perhaps pay a bit more and look a bit further for the most eco-beneficial bits for sale.

Furthermore from a global perspective, supporting local sources of production is vital for the development of economies in less well-off parts of the world. Aid from wealthier countries whilst well intentioned, often cripples economies as producers of any goods cannot compete with literally free handouts. Developing the global economy at a town and village level is vital to help the planet as it is only when this foundation is laid that sustainable development practices can be introduced. Actively choosing fair trade products wherever possible will do wonders in this respect, providing critical support for those in need and ready to work to create their own solutions.

Apply Pressure on Environmental Offenders

If more diplomatic efforts fail to yield results, unfortunately the best course of action is for concerned environmentalists may very well be to organise campaigns highlighting various companies disregard for nature, so as to turn public opinion against those who refuse to listen to reason.

Such activism may seem exhausting and often fruitless when faced with an opponent with such extensive resources, but many peaceful movements have done a fine job at persuading big business to rethink their approach to sustainability. John Lewis is a prime case where this worked in 2010, when animal activists led a protest against the chain’s usage of wool obtained via ‘mulesing’, a particularly nasty way of obtaining wool from lambs. Their supplier in Australia even agreed to invest $23 million in finding an alternate solution, all thanks to the efforts of a comparatively small group of concerned individuals.

Ultimately, the most powerful weapon that individuals can bring about change to create a more environmentally minded international industrial outlook is to use our money to affect change. Business of all shapes and sizes are inherently profit-driven, and will react to consumer demand if enough of us let them know that we want sustainable practices and sources of goods, even if it costs us a bit extra. Change will come about given time and persistence, and eventually buyers, sellers and all the planet will benefit, thanks to a more thoughtful approach to global production.

Justin Fox