I love reading instructions, so when I tried out my first tampon (shortly after getting my period at age 13) I read the instruction pamphlet thoroughly. I clearly remember that the instructions told me to not flush my tampons down the toilet. The bin in my family’s bathroom was just a basket without a lid – I did not relish the thought of wrapping my used tampon in lots of toilet paper and trying to dispose of it discretely in that open bin. What if someone saw it? What if the ants got to it? What if the dog or cat got to it and decided to drag it all around the house?
My mother told me that I could and should flush my tampons down the toilet. I knew that she had been flushing her tampons down the toilet for several decades (while living in 4 different houses) and that she had never had any problems. Therefore, I thought, surely modern toilets can cope with tampons – maybe it’s only the old crusty systems that can’t. So I went with my mother’s advice and flushed my tampons down the toilet! Flushing my tampons down the toilet was great because it kept all possible embarrassment/awkwardness to a minimum.
However, later when I was at University I had a job cleaning a small five-star hotel. One day one of the toilets flooded in a guest’s ensuite because the guest had flushed the tampon down the toilet and it had caused a block. I felt really sorry for that guest because (a) there was no sign by the toilet that said “please don’t flush tampons”, and (b) the bathroom didn’t even have a bin. The only bin was in the bedroom (and that bin didn’t even have a lid).
Since then I’ve wondered about whether it is safe to flush tampons down most toilets. I did a bit of googling to try and find the answer. What I found was a universal “NO” it is not good to flush tampons down the toilet, for the following reasons:
1. Tampons take a long time to break down when they are in water (in comparison, toilet paper breaks down in minutes). Some tampon companies have made special types of tampons that they say can be flushed (e.g. the Tampax Cardboard tampons), however, even these “flushable tampons” don’t break down in water very easily & can potentially cause blockage issues when flushed.
2. Tampons expand in water and sewer lines are quite narrow (only two or three inches wide).
3. If a tampon gets stuck on something (e.g a tree root) as it travels down the sewer pipe it can cause a blockage. A tampon stuck on a tree root will soon attract other objects that will get caught around it – eventually this could cause a block in the sewer pipe.
4. All tampons end up in the landfill anyway, regardless of whether they are flushed or thrown away. If a person flushes a tampon (and it doesn’t get caught on anything) it will travel down the pipe and end up in a treatment plant. It will then go through the pumping stations. The pumping stations use either a chemical or physical filter system (or grinder) to remove or break down objects from toilets, drains, sinks and gutters that don’t break down in water easily (e.g. tampons, sanitary pads, newspaper, baby wipes, condoms etc). According to someone who took a sewage plant tour,
“the sludge digester tank [containing water/faeces/urine/toilet paper] really does resemble a frothy chocolate milkshake. Our prof threw a bucket on a rope into the tank, hoisted out a gallon of the stuff… Gross as it sounds, it didn’t really smell any worse than moist humus-rich earth… condoms and other miscellaneous personal items do get filtered out by a screen. That room does smell bad — stuff comes out of the pipes after being anerobic for hours or days.”
The sewage sludge (poop, urine, toilet paper, water etc) is processed until it is semi-solid and then turned into fertilizer. The objects that were filtered out of the sludge (e.g. tampons and condoms) end up in bins, and those bins then get dumped by forklift to ship to landfills. Therefore a flushed tampon has to go on quite a long (and expensive) journey to end up in the landfill. It would have gotten to the landfill a lot quicker if it had been disposed of in a bin instead of flushed down a toilet.
5. If a person has a septic system, flushed tampons will stay in their tank for a very long time because tampons don’t easily biodegrade. Most tampons are made from cotton and/or rayon. Rayon is synthetic and does not biodegrade easily. The cotton in tampons also takes a long time to break down. Even the tampons that are labelled “biodegradable” will probably take a long time to break down, and can impair the functioning of the septic system.
Now that I know all of that, will I – personally – continue to flush my tampons away? I hardly ever use tampons (I used to use sanitary pads primarily, and now I use a menstrual cup) however I sometimes use tampons when my period comes unexpectedly and tampons are all there is available. If there is an appropriate bin (read: One with a lid!) or sanitary disposal unit (in a public bathroom) then I think I will dispose of my tampon in the bin. However if a bathroom doesn’t have a good bin (or any bin) I think that I would still flush my tampon down the toilet… I think… oh, I don’t know! It would be very embarrassing if the toilet got blocked and caused a flood! Sometimes there are just no good options. I wish that all toilets/bathrooms had bins (and lidded bins if there is a dog, cat, or curious toddler in the household).