In 2017, an unlikely protagonist hit the global newscycle.
A 140-ton mass composed of cooking grease, wipes, and menstrual hygiene products, with some more far-out additions—cocaine, dentures—was discovered in the sewers of London’s East End. It was a fatberg, a subterranean conglomeration of the waste we flush down the toilet.
A starring player in fatbergs: tampons. For many women, masses like the one in London spark the question, “Can you flush tampons?”
What is the Argument for Flushing Tampons?
The debate on whether tampons are truly disposable has raged in women’s magazines for years. Those in favor of flushing tampons— including, at different points, some tampon manufacturers—often say that the toilet seems like the best place for bodily fluids, and point to tampons’ small size.
The argument against flushing tampons:
While tampons are small enough to flush down the toilet without necessarily causing an obstruction, they do sometimes clog your home plumbing. Even worse is the long-term obstructions tampons and other menstrual products create in sewer systems, and the environmental hazard they become when they enter oceans and other waterways.
Cynthia Finley, Director of Regulatory Affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, has seen all kinds of things thrown down the drain, from paper towels to illegal drugs. But, she said, flushed menstrual products are a particularly pesky problem in the United States.
In the U.K., people flush more than 2.5 million tampons down the toilet a day. This is particularly bad news considering that most mainstream tampons and menstrual pads are partly or wholly made of plastic. Tampon applicators, especially plastic applicators, are also a big problem.
At the end of the day, said Finley, flushing tampons is a no-no. “You should only flush the three p’s: pee, poop, and toilet paper. Everything else should go in the trash.”
Why is Flushing Tampons Down the Toilet Bad?
While it may seem like tampons would easily break down in the sewer, that’s not true. In fact, since tampons’ main job is to be absorbent, they’re precisely designed to not break down when exposed to water. This is good news for preventing period leaks, but bad news for your plumbing.
There are several negative effects that improperly disposed menstrual waste has on public infrastructure, health, and the environment.
Tampons take a long time to break down.
To understand how resistant to breaking down tampons really are, Finley suggests an experiment. Take three large jars full of water. Put toilet paper in one, a tampon in the second, and a menstrual pad in a third. Shake the jars.
You’ll see the toilet paper instantly begin to degrade. The tampon and pad, on the other hand, will remain intact. That mimics what will happen when these products venture through the sewer system.
Flushing tampons hurts sewer systems and workers.
So how can an innocent tampon harm your sewer system? Finley explains that there are three main wastewater systems you have to worry about.
First, tampons and other menstrual products can clog the plumbing system in your home, leading to anything from a pesky clogged toilet that can be fixed with a plunger, to a several-hundred-dollar visit from the plumber.
Next, there’s the lateral, a pipe that connects your apartment or house’s plumbing to the overall sewer system. Menstrual products can accumulate in the lateral, preventing waste from properly flowing into the sewer system. If you own your home, maintenance of the lateral is your responsibility, and fixing a clogged lateral can be pricey.
Finally, if you have a sewer system rather than a septic system, waste flows into the sewage utility and to a wastewater treatment plant, where it will be channeled through screens. Tampons and other hygiene products, like wipes, are a common culprit clogging these screens. And when that happens, it can be a true nightmare for workers. “A lot of times it does have to be removed by hand,” said Finely. “It’s a very unpleasant job.”
In the end, that waste will go to a landfill—the same place it would have gone if you had thrown it in the garbage in the first place.
Flushing tampons hurt the environment.
The tampons you flush down the toilet don’t only clog up sewer screens and become fatbergs; they can also enter the ocean. Environmental advocates report a serious problem with plastic tampon applicators washing up on beaches. During one spate of summer beach cleanups in New Jersey, advocates found 3,000 of them.
That’s because many of our sewer systems are what’s called “combined sewer systems.” Our towns and cities are designed to dispose of two kinds of water: rainwater and wastewater. Because rainwater is unpredictable, sewers are designed to permit overflow when there has been too much rain for the system to maintain.
But when wastewater and stormwater are channeled into the same swer system, pollution overflows as well as the water itself. “When those overflows happen it’s not just the storm water that overflows, but things that were flushed,” said Finley.
Some sewer systems have grinders or choppers designed to help household waste move through sewer systems. When they grind tampons or menstrual pads, they can create tiny pieces of plastic that will enter wastewater treatment plants, and ultimately enter natural bodies of water.
How Should You Dispose of Tampons?
The best way to dispose of tampons is simple: wrap the tampon in toilet paper and throw it in the garbage can. Make sure to toss your tampon applicator in the garbage, too.
Is it Okay to Flush One Tampon Down the Toilet?
Imagine this: You’re in a public bathroom and remove your tampon only to realize there is no garbage can in the stall. Or you’re at a friend’s house and you realize they don’t have a bathroom garbage. Your options are clear: Either you wrap the bloody tampon in plenty of toilet paper and carry it out of the stall with you—or to your friend’s kitchen garbage—or you flush it.
This circumstance presents a high risk of flushing. “Nobody, no matter how unembarrassed you are, wants to walk with their tampon out of the bathroom to put in the trash,” Finley said.
While menstruation is totally natural, and it should be absolutely normal and stigma-free to carry a menstrual product out of a stall or ask a host for a garbage, the lesson most of us have been taught since childhood is to hide our menstruation. This can make it deeply uncomfortable to ask for a proper disposal facility.
In this situation, flushing the tampon likely won’t cause an immediate blockage, though there is always a risk of clogging the toilet. You can, however, prevent this kind of situation by choosing a reusable menstrual product, like a menstrual cup or period panties.
What Do You Do When You Flush a Tampon Down the Toilet?
The verdict on flushing just once: You’ll probably be fine if it’s really just one tampon one time.
But considering how pricey calling a plumber is—and how unpleasant it will be for the sewer worker who may have to fish your tampon out of a machine—it’s probably not worth it.
If you do notice a backup or blockage, you’ll have to break out the plunger or call the plumber.
How Can You Reduce the Environmental Impact of Menstrual Waste?
When surveyed, most people who menstruate suggest that they’re interested in reducing the environmental impacts of menstrual product waste. Beyond not flushing tampons, you can choose more environmentally sustainable menstrual hygiene products and practices.
Here are a few ideas.
Switch to reusable menstrual products.
While 100% cotton tampons and pads lack the harmful plastics that can make conventional products a particular environmental hazard, they still don’t break down in water fast enough to be truly sewer-system-safe. Same goes for biodegradable pads, which are a more sustainable alternative to plastics, but which still need more time to biodegrade than a conventional sewer system allows.
To avoid producing garbage almost entirely, consider switching to reusable products like period panties and menstrual cups. If you’d like to continue using tampons, you can also cut down on plastic waste by using tampons without applicators.
Advocate for responsible manufacturing.
For years, some tampon manufacturers included instructions advising users that their products were “flushable.” That labeling can be deceiving. “I do not know of any truly flushable feminine hygiene products,” said Finley. “It’s just not something that the manufacturers want to educate the consumers about.”
To ensure that manufacturers are taking responsibility for sustainability, consumers can pressure them to clearly label tampons and other menstrual products with instructions on safe disposal.
Reduce menstrual stigma.
Ultimately, the shocking impact of menstrual waste on the environment is not primarily the fault of menstruators. While we can do our part to choose more sustainable products, we also have to confront the unsustainable reliance on plastics and one-use products that led to the creation of these disposable goods in the first place.
And we have to confront the social stigma that pressures people who menstruate to have periods that are silent and invisible. The invention of disposable menstrual products helped people with periods become more mobile and independent, allowing us to work and navigate society without having to worry about changing and washing rags.
Yet much of the culture around disposable menstrual products continues to shame people who had periods, emphasizing hiding menstruation with products designed to have surreptitious packaging, “crinkle-free” wrappers, and artificial scents to mask the natural reality of vaginal bleeding.
At the same time, many public places and private homes continue to lack adequate garbage containers so that menstruators can easily dispose of our used tampons and pads. That lack of sanitary options can lead to us flushing tampons down the toilet. So here’s the single best way to reduce improper menstrual waste disposal: make it as easy as possible for people with periods by giving us convenient trash cans.
Opt For Sustainable Solutions
When you flush a tampon, you don’t just roll the dice on your own plumbing. You’re also affecting public sewer systems that are repaired with your community’s tax dollars. Furthermore, disposable sanitary products can wash out to sea, polluting our planet’s beaches and wildlife.
Choose biodegradable tampons and don’t flush them.
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