Tampons: Pull the Plug on Plastic
Written By: Ariel Archibald
It’s no secret that there are some issues with tampons, they have become a bit of a controversial topic lately due to so many rising alternatives. I faced a serious issue with them first hand while cleaning up the shoreline of Lake Ontario. As a team we have found 315 washed up tampon applicators on beaches around the lake in just seven weeks. It was surprising at first, but we quickly became accustomed to finding them dotted along the shore. There are a few problems with this, the obvious one being they're just unpleasant to find, but they are also a serious environmental hazard. I set out to figure out how they were ending up on the beach, and what we can do to fix it.
First off, tampons and their applicators are not even supposed to be flushed. Ever. Even if the box says “flushable”, I discovered that many sewer systems are simply not designed to cope with anything that does not dissolve as easily as toilet paper. Plastic applicators will never break down, and create blockages in the pipes. It's when attempts are made to treat the blockages that sewage can overflow into waterways. A big storm can also flood the sewers and do the same causing sewage to end up in the lake. This is definitely not just a Lake Ontario problem, as I found many reports of beaches being shut down due to the number of plastic applicators washing up, and according to the Center for Marine Conservation’s study done in 1998-1999 over 170,000 applicators were collected on the US coastal areas. I can only imagine there were many more that weren’t collected, and that today the numbers would be drastically higher.
Applicators sure don't look nice on the beach, but that’s not the heart of the issue for me. It’s the wildlife that are affected by our careless actions. They can mistake the applicators for food, consuming them and then being unable to regurgitate the plastic. This creates a lethal situation because the plastic doesn’t break down in their stomach, making them feel “full” and they eventually starve to death. We at A Greener Future have found many applicators on the shore with bite marks, validating that these shiny strange objects do appear as food to some creatures. There are tons of reports of aquatic life found dead with a stomach full of plastic, from whales to birds, dolphins, and fish. Applicators only add to this issue.
Tampons in their very nature are not a friend to the environment, as they are resource and chemical intensive in the manufacturing process (learn more here). But even when plastic applicators are disposed of “properly”, and end up in a landfill, they do not break down because they are not biodegradable under any circumstance. This is a HUGE problem, as there are an estimated 20 BILLION pads, tampons, and applicators being sent to North American landfills every year. It is estimated the average woman uses over 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, and every single plastic applicator will live on. Whether on a beach, in the stomach of an animal, or in a landfill, these plastic applicators will last much longer than the human who used it. There has to be a better option…
Oh wait, there are TONS! I personally find my menstrual cup to work way better for me than tampons ever did, and without the pollution. Cups are great and becoming quite mainstream, but reviews show that they're not for everyone. There are many more options to choose from: period panties, sea sponges, or cloth pads, just to name a few! I grew up using mostly tampons, and I understand the ease of a plastic applicator, but there are so many amazing alternatives, it’s all about finding the best for you! If you’re dead set on tampons, the least you can do is buy organic, unbleached, applicator free, or cardboard applicator versions.
When I set out on our Love Your Lake project I never expected to run into this issue, I was completely oblivious! I was seriously concerned when I found my first one, thinking “Why would anyone ever insert their tampon on a public beach, and then litter the applicator?!” But once I started finding them by the dozen, I needed to figure out why. I needed to get the word out and try to make a change. I know not everyone will jump on board with finding a better alternative, and many will remain ignorant to the issues with tampons and applicators. So I would like to formally ask major tampon companies manufacturing plastic applicators, such as Tampax, Kotex, and Playtex, to stop using plastic. They can easily be using a material that actually breaks down, such as corn based plastic, or paper. Because tampons are the most used menstrual product, this small change would make a huge impact. These companies need to recognize that and do what’s right for us, our planet and the creatures we share it with.
Please sign our petition below to let P&G know that plastic tampon applicators are not necessary, cardboard works just as well and isn't as damaging to the environment.
Ariel Archibald is the Director of Community Connections at A Greener Future. She is also a vegan and animal activist. Ariel has come along on our Love Your Lake journey and attended a majority of the cleanups.