Using Disposable Menstrual Products- What are the Environmental Impacts?

Impact Flow Chart from the RIT Assessment, retrieved from: http://www.thechicecologist.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/tampon-impact1-298×300.jpg

Menstrual hygiene products not only created a new form of enforcing sexist taboos on women, but also created a new attention to the female body that became intricately linked to waste production. Essentially, energy and non-renewable fuels are used while carbon emissions are created at every step of the production process and transportation of tampons. For instance, the polyester used in the formation of plastic tampon applicators is made from petrochemical substances and also requires a large amount of freshwater for cooling. Similarly, the polyester lining and the plastic applicators from tampons on the North American market have been found to contain bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor proven to have harmful effects on aquatic wildlife. Once disposed of in either waterways or landfills, this chemical leaches out into the environment and makes its way into the nearby ecosystems, carried by precipitation overflow (Davidson, 2012).

Tampons, like most sanitary products, are often disposed of using the toilet since this practice is habitual in many developed nations due to the “historical link associating health risks with human waste” (Ashley et al., 2005). Female sanitary hygiene products, especially tampons, are the most significant product disposed of in toilets that cause problems for the water management routes. This is troublesome since “debris, and particularly debris composed of plastic, is one of the world’s most pervasive pollution problems affecting our oceans and inland waterways” (Sheavly and Register, 2007). The disposal of tampons has become more problematic as our consumer societies have increasingly relied on plastic-based products (i.e., plastic applicators instead of cardboard), which do not easily degrade in waterborne waste routes (Ashley et al., 2005). The plastic hulls of tampons can be found to travel extensive distances, up to thousands of miles if carried by currents, because of their high degree of buoyancy. This creates a threat to marine ecosystems where the plastic waste collects (Sheavly and Register, 2007). The wildlife can confuse plastic tampon hulls for food, consuming them and then not being able to regurgitate the plastic. These hulls can become lodged in their digestive tracts and create a sense of cessation since the plastic does not degrade. This in turn can cause certain marine animals to stop eating and “slowly starve to death” (Sheavly and Register, 2007). Debris from feminine hygiene products that enter waterways through inadequate sewage treatment or direct sewage outflows can create serious water quality problems, which in turn affect human health and safety. Sewer systems, when first implemented, were not designed to cope with the nature and amount of waste generated by the disposal of plastic-based sanitary products such as tampons. As such, blockages in the pipes and treatment works are often the outcome of an accumulation of this waste, leading to sewage overflows, which create a significant threat to human and animal populations along the waterways by increasing the bacterial content of the water-body. This further undermines the efficiency of water treatment plants and increases the amount of repairs necessary for treatment centres, costs that can be passed on to the consumer or to the general public through heightened taxes (Bag it & Bin it, 2012). Oftentimes, discarded tampons can harbour potentially harmful bacteria and pathogens. Contact with these discarded tampons laden with contaminants or the water they inhabit can lead to “infectious hepatitis, diarrhoea, bacillary dysentery, skin rashes, and even typhoid and cholera” (Sheavly and Register, 2007).

Even if tampons are disposed of properly in solid waste and end up in landfills, the lack of oxygen found within these sites renders the decomposition of tampons unlikely if not impossible (Davidson, 2012). A study undertaken by Bridle and Kirkpatrick on the disposal rates of hygienic products found that in most natural regions, tampons are the slowest paper/cotton product to degrade since they are a very dense fibre product (2005). Similarly, these products tend to degrade slower if they have been bleached during the production process to seem “immaculately clean.” During this study, tampons tended to degrade fastest in warm, dry and minutely acidic sites. In regions where these characteristics were not met, discarded tampons can persist for longer amounts of time, creating pollution that is aesthetically unpleasant and a potential health hazard. Although this waste might seem like an insignificant problem, the amount of solid waste generated by disposable pads and tampons has been estimated at 62,415 lbs. or roughly 0.5% of a woman’s gross lifetime landfill contribution (Lunapads, 2012).

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