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.

How sustainable architecture could be the key to building a greener society

This is a guest blog from James Hale, a graduate of the University of Kent. Having studied English and American Literature, James now works as a freelance writer, penning his thoughts on anything and everything of interest. He’s passionate about sustainability, and loves helping to spread the word about how we can all factor it into our day to day lives.

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If you think humans are wasteful, just consider the buildings we live in. Buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy, while 25% of the planet’s wood supply and 15% of its water are also eaten up by residential and commercial constructions.

In the pursuit of global sustainability, it’s clear that if we’re going to make lasting changes to our impact on the planet, we not only need to pay attention to how we can improve modern society, but to how we build it.

In recent years, architects, designers, and construction experts have been turning their focus to ‘sustainable architecture’ – mastering this principle of design and construction could be the key to building a greener society.

Understanding the impact of architecture on the environment

There is near unanimous agreement in the scientific community that the increase in global GHGs (Greenhouse Gas Emissions) can be directly attributed to human interaction with the planet – and more specifically, as a result of fossil fuel based energy generation.

While this might be a commonly acknowledged premise, it’s one that directly links to the way we design and construct the buildings we use. When considering architecture as a practice, design and construction are often regarded as one and the same, but the difference between the two is an important factor to acknowledge.

Building construction

In the UK, the construction industry is responsible for 32% of total landfill. Each year, over 400 million tonnes of materials are delivered (a process involving significant carbon emissions) to building construction sites, of which approximately 60 million tonnes are disposed of straight away, due to storage-related damage or inaccurate ordering.

This creates an immediate issue related to space – simply put, we don’t have enough room for the amount of landfill that we’ll need should current rates continue. While moves towards innovative methods of landfill are being made and increases in landfill tax are being levied, the drive for sustainability makes this a massive and hotly debated issue.

Possibly the most significant other aspect of construction lies in the CO2 emissions associated with the process. Construction involves multiple stages that cumulatively lead to large-scale carbon emissions, two of the most significant of which are:

Transportation

This includes the transportation of both people and materials, which often takes place over a long period, and via a large number of sources. This includes (but is not limited to) vehicles used to drive to and from the site, and international and national freight of materials (sometimes via boat, train, or even plane).

On-site emissions 

The largest quantity of CO2 is usually emitted from on-site procedures. This involves both direct and indirect emissions as a result of processes such as combustion, as well as energy used on site by everything from heavy-duty machinery to the microwaves used to heat lunches.

Government research has found that construction is likely one of the main causes of CO2 emissions that in the UK, and is potentially responsible for over 40% of total emissions in the country. Within the construction process itself, the largest cause of emissions is the manufacture of products and materials.

Building Design

The other cornerstone of the architectural process, and possibly the one most intrinsically associated with the profession, is the way buildings are designed. Thoughts inevitably turn to aesthetics – but when it comes to sustainability, this factor has a far more important role than simply leaving a lasting visual impression.

The same government study into the impact of construction on CO2 emissions found that some 80% of total emissions of buildings came from ‘in-use’ factors – that is, the activities that take place within buildings themselves.

This is a huge element to the sustainable impact of architecture: the way we use a structure and how ‘healthy’ and efficient it is, is of critical and often underappreciated importance.

One of the most significant factors in a building’s sustainability lies in its energy efficiency, particularly when it comes to things such as heating – and this largely comes down to the way the structure is designed. There are many factors that impact efficiency and sustainability in design, but a few of the most important include:

Heating 

When a building is heated, a lot – typically up to 75% – of that energy gets lost as it bleeds through the structure (with nearly 50% lost through the windows and roof). The insulation of a structure, the types of glazing used and the way a building is heated all have a part to play – the more energy required and the more that’s lost, the less sustainable the design.

Water

Water consumption in the western world is increasing, with the average UK citizen using an average of 150 litres a day. The way water is incorporated into the design of a building, both in the way it is supplied and removed (and for what purpose), can have a significant impact on its sustainability.

Ventilation and Air Quality

Maybe a little less obvious, but nonetheless a vital factor in the sustainability of a building’s design, is the way it handles the ventilation and circulation of air. This is particularly relevant when it comes to large commercial or industrial buildings (which often feature elaborate integrated ventilation systems), and can involve a large amount of energy consumption – along with physical emissions of CO2 and other gases.

Electrical consumption

The design of a building significantly contributes to its electrical consumption, and this in turn has an impact on the structure’s overall sustainability. Everything from wiring and lighting to other features (including appliances and integrated systems such as motorised doors and windows) will determine whether, over time, the building can operate sustainably.

How can architecture be sustainable?

By considering the way buildings are constructed and used in the long run, and taking into account the impact the structure will have on the natural world and the environment, architects have developed and honed new techniques and practices – helping to ensure that the process of design and construction can operate sustainably. These include:

Sustainable Construction

Sustainable architecture focuses on wastage during the construction process, and finds new ways to economise the use of materials and their harmful impacts on the environment. A few simple but crucial tenets of sustainable architecture can be applied to construction to reduce environmental impact.

Firstly, the application of nontoxic materials and adhesives is an important step. The use of many standard components can result in what’s known, as ‘outgassing’ (the release of volatile and dangerous substances into the atmosphere), even after construction is complete. Simply substituting these for nontoxic variations can mitigate this issue.

Additionally, by using recycled and natural renewable materials (such as harvested wood, glass, concrete, and rock), designs can minimise the carbon footprint of the material aspect of the construction process.

Architects may also choose to incorporate features and fixtures, such as doors or flooring, from other buildings, reducing the production impact of their constructions. Partnerships between architectural studios and construction firms (who have themselves committed to a sustainable model) can also help reduce the impact of building construction, enabling professionals to determine the most appropriate strategies on a project-by-project basis.

Technological innovation

In both architecture, and all constructive professions more broadly, sustainability can be approached in one of two ways. The first involves finding strategies to reduce the impact we have on the environment, and to improve the efficiency of our technology. The second is to adopt a more ‘tabula rasa’ mentality: start from scratch, innovate, and create new solutions to problems that have heretofore been solved in an environmentally irresponsible way.

By working with suppliers, specialists, and designers, architects can create buildings and structures that don’t just approach sustainable design by the book – they rewrite the book entirely, and create solutions that redefine what we can achieve in terms of environmental construction.

Whether it’s the work of companies like structural glazing firm Cantifix – who used cutting-edge insulated glazing technology to create the world’s first all-glass living environment – or the relatively new phenomenon of ‘living buildings’ (structures that use net-zero or net-positive energy systems, along with all kinds of other eco-techniques to ensure a carbon footprint that’s close to non-existent), the use of innovative technology can ensure that the quest for a greener society continues to progress.

Efficient insulation

Insulation is usually the largest determining factor when it comes to the energy required to heat a building. Simply put, a well-insulated structure loses less heat, requires less power to keep warm, and has less of a carbon footprint as a result.

This can be achieved simply through the use of more efficient insulating construction fabrics and materials. Other elements such as double-glazing will ensure that insulation is taken fully into account as a cornerstone of sustainable design.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to insulation, both interior heat retention and exterior heat reduction are important for reducing the need for air conditioning, particularly when it comes to solar gain. Efficient design ensures that interior climates are maintainable with as little energy as possible.

Intelligent water systems

All buildings need a water supply, and depending on their intended purpose some need an awful lot. Sustainable architecture seeks to find ways to both conserve and reduce the amount of water used, as well as ways to potentially reuse water.

Appliances, while not necessarily within the remit of the architect, contribute most significantly to the water consumption of a building – with toilets alone responsible for around 40% of total water usage. The installation of more efficient water fixtures, integrated with systems that collect and reuse water or use gravity to reduce the need for assisted water pressure, can make a big difference.

There has also been a move to reaffirm some of the ways water was used by architects in the pre-industrial era. In what is known as ‘bioclimatic’ architecture (designs that aim to provide thermal comfort based on local climates, using elemental resources such as solar energy), water can be used as an interior thermal regulator. This, along with techniques such as passive water-cooling, can redefine the ways we think about and use water – reducing climatic impact as a result.

Humane site selection

While the processes involved in the design of a building can factor into sustainable practices, one of the biggest improvements to the environmental impact of architecture is through humane site selection and design.

 When selecting the location for a design (particularly applicable to rural plans), architects can make sustainable choices, such as factoring in sunlight as a source of light and heat, and angling a building in such a way that it integrates natural solar gain. Even situating a building with shelter from prevailing winds can improve energy efficiency if the terrain is suitable.

In rural architecture, the preservation of natural conditions can contribute to the sustainability of a design – such as respecting existing topography, taking steps to ensure the water table remains undisturbed, and considering flora and fauna. Simply selecting a site that doesn’t require extensive excavation can make all the difference.

When it comes to urban and city projects, other factors (e.g. vehicle access and proximity to/integration with public transport) can combine to reduce the need for extensive vehicle use.

Sustainable urban architecture also pays attention to purpose. By combining residential, commercial, and professional spaces, commutes can be reduced – as can the continued expanse of sprawling suburbs, and other harmful developments further out of city centres.

Sustainable energy production

One of the most widely recognised ways in which building design can work towards a more sustainable society lies in the ways in which energy is produced. If an architect can factor in energy production via solar panels, for instance, then the carbon footprint of a building can be hugely reduced.

From photovoltaic panels (the deep blue panes many of us are accustomed to seeing on rooftops) and cells, to solar water heating systems, architects can negate the need for large-scale energy consumption. With power being such a primary concern when it comes to sustainability, this is a crucial step towards a greener society.

A brighter, greener future

Sustainability is a complex and multifaceted topic; almost every human action, from the ways we travel to the food we eat, has an impact on both global and local ecology. But with more of a focus than ever now being placed not only on how we live in society, but also how we build it, architects could become the vanguards of a greener, more sustainable world.

 

It’s Easy Being Green – How To Travel And Keep Things Sustainable

This is a guest blog from James Hale, a graduate of the University of Kent. Having studied English and American Literature, James now works as a freelance writer, penning his thoughts on anything and everything of interest. He’s passionate about sustainability, and loves helping to spread the word about how we can all factor it into our day to day lives.

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For many of us, sustainability has become an integral part of day to day life – we recycle, we habitually turn off lights, and some of us even cycle to work on a regular basis. But when it comes to travelling, these habits tend to get left at the check-in desk. With so much to organise when planning a globetrotting adventure, going green and being eco-friendly are often the last things on our mind. But there are plenty of steps you can take to factor these things into your travels, without sacrificing the quality of your holiday in the process.

Travelling offers us an escape from our day-to-day lives – a chance to explore new cultures in a liberating and exciting way. On the surface, it might seem that factoring sustainability into our travels would be burdensome.

In reality, it’s a lot easier than you might think. You don’t need to go to the ends of the Earth (pun absolutely intended) to make a difference; the key thing is to understand exactly how travel and sustainability are linked, and what you can do about it.

Condensation trails from aircraft

 

How does travel affect sustainability (and what is being done)?

There are, broadly speaking, two main areas in which travel affects sustainability – the impact it has on the planet, and the impact on the local ecology and economy.

  • Impact on the Planet

In terms of the environment, CO² and other greenhouse gas emissions are the most immediately obvious areas in which travel impacts sustainability. Air travel specifically is one of the most damaging culprits – accounting for 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions annually, and a staggering 781 million tonnes of CO² in 2015 alone.

Fortunately, initiatives are being introduced to reduce these impacts. Airlines are responding positively to carbon-cutting targets, and an increasing number of airports are even fuelling aircraft with alternatives to traditional pollutant fuels.

  • Impact on local economy/ecology

Through its ties with the hospitality industry, travel also has a big impact on local economics and ecology.

Simply put, travelers and holidaymakers need somewhere to stay. Unfortunately this has lead to the dominance, in many popular destinations, of international hotels and corporations. Thanks to global supply chains, these often fail to invest in local culture, buy local produce, or hire local staff.

Even alternative, private accommodation options such as second home ownership can be detrimental to local communities. Properties left vacant throughout the majority of the year are a drain on space and resources, and can stall community development. The rise of popularity of property investment funds and other fractional ownership platforms offers some relief to this issue, but it’s still a huge problem for local sustainability.

Similarly, the activities travelers engage in also have a big effect on local ecologies and economies. UNEP found that some 80% of the expenditure of ‘adventure tourists’ goes to international companies rather than local businesses or workers, damaging local economies. There are however some initiatives, such as WHOA (Women High On Adventure), which aim to tackle this in innovative and inspiring ways.

So what can I do when I go travelling?

Fortunately, you won’t need to overhaul your plans, break the bank, or go to any extreme lengths; factoring sustainability into your travels can even save you money. The key thing is to identify which elements of your travel plans are likely to have the biggest impact, and see if you can make small changes when planning your trip, and during your stay.

Before you embark

Firstly, consider the transport you’ll be taking. In many cases, flying will be an inevitability for excursions abroad or to far-off destinations, but you can still make green decisions. Take-off and landings are the most CO²-heavy parts of air travel, so if possible, choose a direct flight with as few stopovers or landings as possible.

If you’re travelling somewhere closer, consider making a more eco-friendly choice than flying. Trains, for example, offer staggeringly lower CO² emissions when compared with aircraft – and are usually cheaper. It can be tempting to simply want to opt for the faster option, but if train travel is an option, it’s worth exploring.

Another thing to think about is where you’re going to stay (which will depend, naturally, on the type of trip you’re taking).

If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, consider sharing rooms – sharing a space inevitably is beneficial in terms of energy consumption and sustainability. If you’re travelling solo, or are backpacking, options like Airbnb or Couchsurfing could enable you to stay with a host in their home, eliminating any affiliation with large, consumptive hotel chains.

It’s also a good idea to be aware of which corporations, businesses and brands you opt to use. There are almost always multiple options when it comes to booking transport and accommodation (particularly if you use comparison sites), and taking the time to do some research – via online ‘green index’ tools, or simply checking company websites for recognised sustainability certificates – can reveal which of your potential choices are most committed to sustainability.

Things to think about when you’re there

The priority during your time spent travelling should be to enjoy yourself – but there are a few simple things you can do to keep things green, which won’t detract from your experiences.

Try to use reusable containers. If you’re shopping, aim to bring at least one reusable bag with you to reduce plastic consumption. In many places it might be necessary to purchase bottled water, but where you can, use a reusable water bottle too. This is particularly important if you’re backpacking, and it will save you money too – all those Evian bottles add up!

Backpacking!

Think about where you’re shopping too; if you only need a few ingredients for some evening cooking, then shopping at a small local business is a more sustainable option than choosing to visit a huge multi-national supermarket (as tempting as this can be). It’ll also give you a far more authentic taste of the local community and culture, so it’s a win-win. If you’re eating out, try to opt for local restaurants or cafés that source their ingredients locally.

The other main thing to be wary of is the activities you take part in, or more generally, the things you do when you’re on your travels. As appealing as it may be to drive a quad bike through the jungle, or water-jetpack around a harbour, it might be a good idea to limit how many of these environmentally harmful activities you take part in.

Even just being as self-aware as possible can make a difference – if you’re hiking or walking, don’t drop any litter, and if you see any, try to throw it away. Do your best to leave as minimal an imprint on the local ecology as possible – stick to the well-beaten path; even hiking can cause damage over time, but as long as you are conscious of the environment you’re exploring, these effects can be dramatically reduced.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to travel, as with many other walks of life, it’s often the little things that can make a big difference in terms of sustainability. It’s not worth letting an environmentally conscious attitude prevent you from enjoying yourself – you need merely try to be as aware and informed as possible when making choices.

When you’re traveling in the future, simply do some homework; check out the different options available to you, and try to be mindful of what impact you might have. The real goal shouldn’t be to compromise the quality of your experiences, but simply to see if there are more sustainable alternatives, as doing so can save you time and money. Along with a tan and an abundance of photos, you’ll return home with a real sense that you’ve done your bit to keep things green.

How Worried Should We Be About Air Pollution In Canterbury?

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

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Situated a good ways south of London amidst the ‘Garden of England’, you could be forgiven for assuming that Canterbury and the surrounding parts of Kent are oasis’s of environmental welfare and a triumph of nature. However, as with any urban hub that has increasingly developed and become more and more built up over time, there is a hidden menace which threatens our health and goes against the most central tenants of sustainability.

Whether you’re based up by the University or in the heart of the city, there’s no getting away from the emissions of industry, transport, and those generated just from day to day living. According to Canterbury Council, their current objective in this regard is to keep a lid on the quantity of nitrogen dioxide being produced and specific attention is being paid to the city centre and surrounding primary roads.

 

The ring road around Canterbury city centre

Naturally when compared to the larger and more densely populated cities across the country, Canterbury is hardly going to be the first location that requires urgent aid. Statistics from Air Quality England since the turn of the year place the city within the lowest ‘band’ of pollution and note that the Strategic Objectives for the area are ‘not exceeded’.

However that’s not to say things are totally fine and there’s no reason for Canterbury residents to be concerned about air quality at a local level. Persistent exposure to unclean air can have all kinds of unforeseen consequences as even low levels of pollution can do damage to someone if they feel its impact each and every day.

The prevalence of agricultural farms on such a scale nearby also could be some cause for concern as a factor driving air pollution as animals on farms in particular are known for being a net contributor to methane emissions. Whilst there’s no denying the valuable economic contribution food production has both countywide and nationally, that as with most things comes with an environmental cost.

Indeed there were worries in the Spring of 2016 that air pollutants from farms within Kent were going to combine with those from mainland Europe and create an ‘agricultural smog’. Various officials recommended that those with pre-existing breathing issues should avoid physical activity and seek shelter where possible, and that anyone else displaying symptoms of breathing difficulties should also stop what they are doing and take things easy.

Westgate Gardens

Overall the point is that despite appearances, air pollution is a serious matter even in locales where you might not think it would be a matter of priority. Whilst comparatively benign compared to larger population centres, that’s not to say work isn’t still needed to better air quality in Canterbury. Newly incoming MP Rosie Duffield had covered the matter in the run-up to the election, so hopefully action can soon be taken to set matters aright. For the time being though individual responsibility is still vital to protecting ourselves from the effects of pollution, as complacency cannot be afforded with an issue that impacts on every one of us.