During her annual cleanups along the shores of Lake Ontario, Rochelle Byrne has come across hundreds of plastic tampon applicators.
“When I started finding those on beaches, I was a little bit confused,” she said.
Unlike litter such as coffee cups, plastic bags or cigarette butts, tampon applicators aren’t items that are usually discarded on the shoreline. So Byrne did some research to find out why they were ending up there.
“It’s because people flush them down the toilet.”
Although they’re not listed as one of the items in the upcoming Canadian ban on single-use plastics, tampon applicators are frequently found in shoreline cleanups and don’t easily degrade.
Since 2014, when Byrne began organizing cleanups, she estimates they’ve found over 1,500 tampon applicators along Lake Ontario. They’re so common that her non-profit, A Greener Future, began a petition a few years ago asking leading tampon brand Tampax to stop making plastic applicators. It now has nearly 150,000 signatures.
“It comes down to understanding the implications of single-use plastic,” Byrne said. “And that it doesn’t go away for a very long time.”
But why are tampon applicators ending up on our shores in the first place?
‘Things that come out of your toilet’
Tampon applicators are nowhere near as abundant as other shoreline litter — for example, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup found more than 680,000 cigarette butts and 74,000 food wrappers last year.
Still, between 3,000 and 3,500 tampons and applicators are found on the country’s beaches annually, said Kate Le Souef, manager of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. She estimates that applicators alone make up 80 per cent of that number.
Today in Canada, many tampons are sold with an applicator, which helps the user insert the tampon. Some applicators are made of cardboard but many are now plastic, and come in different colours, depending on the design and brand.
While tampon applicators are only used for a few seconds, plastic takes a long time to degrade.
“Because they’re hard plastic, they float,” Le Souef said. “[They] last a long time in the water.”
These applicators are often found on shorelines along with condoms and needles, items that usually originate in the same place — the toilet.
Applicators, condoms and needles aren’t supposed to be flushed, but if they are, they’re meant to be filtered out at sewage treatment plants.
The fact that they’re ending up on beaches is “an indicator that there’s sewage being discharged in the area,” said Mark Mattson, the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and president of Swim Drink Fish, a group that monitors the water in Lake Ontario.
Untreated sewage shouldn’t generally be released into Canadian waters. However, Mattson said that it does happen in certain circumstances.
In cities with older sewage systems, the same pipes take both sewage and rainwater to the treatment plant. These combined sewer overflows are used in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. But if there’s a big rainstorm, the sewers get too full — and it’s all released into waterways without being treated.
“If you go down to any of the marinas after a rain,” Mattson said, “you’ll see condoms floating around, tampon applicators and needles.”
The prevalence of plastic applicators
Though plastic applicators did not meet the criteria to be included as one of the six single-use plastic items in next year’s ban, Byrne said that A Greener Future’s Tampax petition is a way to raise awareness about the problem of plastic applicators.
“People don’t know that they’re even a problem,” she said.
But not everyone has shown support for the petition against plastic applicators.
“A lot of people aren’t happy with the alternatives on the market now, and don’t want to make that change,” Byrne said.
She added that anyone used to plastic applicators may find it difficult to switch. Alternatives such as tampons with cardboard applicators — or no applicator at all — can be less comfortable and not as easy to use.
On their websites, tampon companies say not to flush their products. Instead, applicators are supposed to be disposed of in the garbage, so they’ll eventually end up in a landfill. Since they’re considered medical waste, plastic applicators can’t be recycled.
Other alternatives, such as menstrual cups, can be reused and produce significantly less waste.
If people still choose to use tampons with applicators, Byrne wants them to understand the ramifications of disposing of them in the toilet.
We’re operating under this assumption that we need to hide periods.– Sharra Vostral, professor at Purdue University
“I think it comes down to just the convenience of flushing,” Byrne said. Another factor, she explained, may be that it’s an easy way to make signs of a tampon disappear.
“If people are at someone else’s house or out at a restaurant and there isn’t a way to dispose of the applicator discreetly, it’s probably easier to flush it down the toilet so it’s gone.”
Flushing applicators helps ‘hide periods’
The idea of keeping menstruation discreet may be at the root of this plastic problem, said Sharra Vostral, a professor at Purdue University who’s studied the history of menstrual pads and the author of two books on the subject.
“We’re operating under this assumption that we need to hide periods,” she said. Vostral described how pads and tampons are designed to be as discreet as possible to help people “pass” as if they’re not menstruating. Flushing these products has helped hide periods for decades.
“I think it’s like, out of sight, out of mind, get rid of it,” Vostral said. She described how some of the early Kotex instructions in the 1920s and ’30s would tell consumers to take apart the used pad and flush it down the toilet, one piece at a time. This practice, of course, could cause major plumbing issues.
“I think it does have a lot to do with embarrassment,” she said. “We’re taught to not tell people. We’re taught that it is disgusting.”
Tampon applicators, Vostral explained, have their own history of discretion. When modern tampons came into common use in the 1930s, there were worries about women using their fingers to insert a tampon, which led to the development of the applicator.
“There [were] concerns that women might find [tampons] pleasurable,” Vostral said, “and that they really should not be touching themselves.”
The applicator was also supposed to make the overall process of using a tampon less dirty.
“[Marketers] always use these words like ‘dainty’ or ‘hygienic,'” she said. “That was the argument: that it was a mess, and you don’t need to touch the mess.”
Talking about a taboo
These ways of thinking about menstruation may be at the root of why so many tampon applicators end up in the sewage system. Challenging those attitudes, Vostral said, is the first step toward change.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to say everyone’s going to jump up and embrace their periods,” she said. “But just making it neutral instead of stigmatized is a big shift.”
It may be easy to overlook the issue of plastic applicators on our shores, Byrne said, because “it’s a bit of a taboo topic.” That’s part of her motivation to make others understand what happens when plastic is flushed.
So far, Tampax hasn’t responded to the petition asking them to stop making plastic applicators. But Byrne hopes more awareness about the problem will lead to less plastic along the shoreline.
“It all comes down to education,” she said, “and figuring out why these problems are happening.”