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.

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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.

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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.

Let’s save the World one return form at a time!

This week’s guest post comes from Claudia Cox, a Classics student at Edinburgh University entering her final year of study. Claudia is passionate about sustainability and protecting the environment, and also loves getting involved in social and environmental projects to encourage positive change where possible.

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Why its time online retailers get serious about sustainable packaging

A recent survey by UPS shows that people are now doing 51% of their shopping online (excluding groceries), which is a vast amount in comparison to just a few years ago.

This is great news for the environmental side of things, as customers who tend to shop online rather than in stores have already reduced their carbon footprint by driving less, and research carried out by Carnegie Melon University has found that it is more eco friendly for businesses to be online since they have an overall energy consumption that is 30% lower than traditional shops.

But there’s also another side of the same coin: with increased demand for delivered items also comes the need for more and more packaging.  So it becomes clear that it’s time online retailers up their game and think seriously about the parcels they’re sending out each day and the ways in which they can help reduce their negative impact on the environment.

Who hasn’t, at some point, been shocked by the awfully excessive amount of wrapping they’ve ended up with when ordering a very small item? It is sad to learn that the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2012 containers and packaging accounted for 30% (75.2m tons) of total solid waste generated in the US. Using eco-friendly packaging is therefore one of the most important steps companies can take to minimise their environmental impact.

However, conceded that having fully sustainable packaging throughout the supply chain is still a big challenge, it feels like all ecommerce retailers, and particularly the major ones, should be doing more to improve their packaging practices. Technology and innovation has helped to create sustainable alternatives, but big companies should also pay close attention to what startups are doing.

Ecovative, for example, uses agricultural waste to grow packaging in different shapes and the Finnish startup RePack gives customers of online retailers adopting the solution the option of paying a small deposit for reusable packaging at checkout. This deposit then gets reimbursed once the bag or box finds its way back to the company, via any post office in Europe. Others, like ethical clothing company Verry Kerry, have found some creative ways to minimise their environmental impact. Firstly they do not include a return form in every parcel, which on a large scale could amount to a huge saving in paper and ink. Enclosing return forms in every order seems to be a common practice among fashion retailers (ASOS & co) but, as Amazon & eBay demonstrate (with their online return policy), it’s clear that alternatives are available. Verry Kerry also send their (sustainably made) garments in recycled paper mailing bags, which are a great substitute of the commonly used plastic alternatives .

 

This is another way to check your packaging is sustainable, by ensuring that your products are enclosed in materials which are recyclable, as far as possible. For online retailers, this means not using flimsy plastic packaging to wrap items which is wasteful and unnecessary, but rather placing them inside packaging such as a reusable bag or a large recycled paper envelope. This keeps costs and environmental impact down to a minimum. Reducing the overall amount of packaging is also important, for example not using two separate bags for a product where one would suffice, and getting rid of excessive amounts of paper/plastic enclosed within the parcel.

The leading online fashion company ASOS have a list of packaging initiatives in line with these ideas, among which include using lighter packaging to help reduce CO2 emissions from deliveries and recycling packaging from customer returns. However although all their boxes are fully recyclable still only 25% of their bags are, and sadly this is the sort of packaging which is most frequently used by ASOS. It is clear from this that they are only part of the way there, and there is definitely so much more that they, as well as other large retail companies, can be doing to improve upon this.

To summarise, it is crucial that online retailers get their act together and start thinking seriously about how they can reduce the negative effects which unsustainable packaging has on the environment. It is the hope that in the future all retailers will have to adhere to strict guidelines about the way in which they conduct their packaging process, so why not take some initiative and start now, one step ahead of everyone else!