Walk into any women’s restroom, and chances are, you’ll see a sign about how to dispose of feminine hygiene products. You know the one: Please do NOT flush tampons or pads. Or Please throw tampons and pads in the trash provided—not the toilet. Or So help me god, if you flush that tampon, the flooding of this clogged toilet will be worthy of Noah himself.
Despite these warnings, plenty of women flush their period products without batting a lash—and much of the time, there aren’t any immediate consequences. So what’s the deal? Should you really refrain from flushing that tampon?
Short answer: OF COURSE. DON’T FLUSH THOSE TAMPONS, LADIES—OUR SEPTIC SYSTEMS WERE NOT BUILT FOR THAT ISH.
Long answer: Feminine hygiene products are non-degradable and therefore will easily clog up your local septic system. Literally anything that is not toilet paper or, um, human waste cannot be flushed. That goes for applicators, too! Those cardboard tubes may be labeled as biodegradable or even "flushable"—but that doesn't mean you can just fling the thing in the toilet.
Tara Johnson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says that tampons and other commonly flushed products including wipes, tissues, paper towels, floss, hair, and yes, condoms, cannot be broken down or digested by microorganisms in the sewage system. They can, however, build up and cause a system failure in both an individual homeowner’s septic tank as well as public wastewater facilities.
“Wastewater treatment plants receive these products in great volume,” said Johnson in an e-mail to Fusion. “These products must be regularly removed or the treatment plant must be retrofitted with a more powerful grinder to break down these items so they will not clog the system. Millions of dollars [are] being spent nationally to deal with these products in wastewater treatment facilities.”
Earlier this month, New York Times' Matt Flegenheimer wrote about how, in the last five years, the City of New York has spent more than $18 million just to deal with the immense amount of wet wipes clogging up the city’s wastewater treatment plants. While there aren't any stats that speak specifically to the destruction wrought by tampons, feminine products are indeed contributing to significant clogging and system failures.
According to a 2010 report, local governments across the country spent $369.1 billion between 2000 and 2008 on public wastewater treatment (which involves the removal of, well, non-degradable items that are flushed down the toilet. You know what you'll find in that heap of non-degradable items? TAMPONS.) And according to the EPA’s 2008 Clean Watershed Needs Survey, the total wastewater infrastructure investment needs are almost $300 billion. Tampon? More like tamp-OFF.
Everything costs money. Removing feminine hygiene products from a wastewater treatment facility and transporting them to a landfill is expensive. Fixing machinery in a wastewater treatment facility that has been put out of commission due to a massive deluge of tampons is also expensive. Throwing a used tampon in the trash instead of flushing it? Much cheaper. Only YOU can prevent tampon-clogged toilets.
Related: The history of the tampon in two minutes.