Condoms, menstrual products, sex toys and other personal care goods generally have two possible life paths. The products are purchased, used and eventually disposed of. But it’s how they’re disposed of that determines which path they take.
It’s impossible not to see the signs. They take up almost every convenient wall space in residence hall bathrooms. “Do not flush condoms or menstrual products down the toilet. Dispose of them in the trash.” Some may take heed of the warning and dispose of the waste properly. Others may not, and that’s where the cycle gets complicated.
If a used condom is tied off, wrapped up in tissue and put in the trash, it will eventually be picked up by waste management. Then, it is sorted and sent to a local landfill. But Kate Blyth, student coordinator for Zero Waste at Ohio University, says small pieces of plastic and foil, including tampon applicators and condom wrappers, could be left behind because the facility processes so much waste.
“They’re very, very small, and those kind of things tend to fall through the cracks, literally, the cracks of a recycling system,” Blyth says.
That may delay the process, but it continues once the non-recyclable waste reaches the landfill. Landfills regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency are required to be built away from “faults, wetlands, floodplains or other restricted areas” and have a composite liner on the bottom and sides to prevent waste from contaminating groundwater and soil.
“Any water that is exposed from our trash immediately runs down into tanks, so none of the actual trash water is entered into the environment at all,” Athens-Hocking Reclamation Center employee Ethan Nye says. “And then any runoff water we do have from ground water is constantly tested.”
The waste is covered by soil, and the landfill is eventually closed off and won’t cause much harm to the environment. But if someone decides to flush a condom instead, its life path is drastically altered.
If the waste doesn’t make it into the main sewage line, Associate Director of Health Promotion Terry Koons says it could endanger those in the area.
“If it comes back up [the toilet], you could expose people, especially in a residence hall, to biohazardous materials,” he says.
Even if something is supposedly flushable, Voinovich School Environmental Specialist Nicole Kirchner says it may not decompose at a rate that’s fast enough to avoid clogging up a system once it reaches the main sewage line.
“Tampons and other personal items that are flushable, including for children, can end up clogging different filters in water treatment plants,” she says. “So, they actually become quite a nuisance.”
If the waste makes it through the pipes and filters in the water treatment plant, Loraine McCosker, a research associate in the Voinovich School and Environmental Studies outreach coordinator, says the waste could continue on and affect the world.
“It will go into the water system, and it goes to the sewage treatment plant and can eventually end up in rivers and the ocean,” she says. “So right now, there’s a huge issue with plastics in the ocean.”
The Ocean Conservancy, an organization that removes waste from oceans, collected 632,412 condoms and 599,355 tampons and tampon applicators from ocean waters during International Coastal Cleanups from 1985 to 2010, according to its 2011 report. Used condoms and tampons contain bacteria and other contaminants that are hazardous to the health of both humans and animals.
Pads and tampons aren’t necessarily great for one’s health while they’re in use, either. According to Lunette, a company that makes menstrual cups, tampon fibers can be left behind after removal, and pads can cause bacteria growth and yeast infections.
But what if there was a third path for hazardous personal care waste? What if condoms, wrappers and menstrual products were recyclable and those products were readily available to consumers? Some companies, individuals and researchers are trying to figure out how to do that.
Male and female condoms aren’t recyclable; they can’t be used again and shouldn’t be placed in a recycling bin. Some, such as condoms made of lambskin, are biodegradable and will break down quickly over time. More common condom materials such as latex and polyurethane are not as quick to decompose in a landfill, especially if they were used with certain lubricants and spermicides.
Although Koons says thinking about protecting the environment is important, choosing not to use protection to be more environmentally conscious isn’t a good health choice.
“I [or the Latex League] would never tell somebody, ‘Don’t use a latex condom to prevent hurting the Earth’ when you might put yourself at risk for sexually transmitted infections or HIV,” he says.
The Latex League, a student group supervised by Koons that educates students about safe sex, provides free female condoms; latex and nonlatex condoms, dental dams and latex gloves are provided at cost. Koons says the group has considered offering more environmentally friendly options, but it feels the best way to promote safer sex to college students is to provide protection at a low cost.
Condoms and menstrual product wrappers have the potential to be recyclable and better for the environment, but those environmentally friendly options aren’t as cheap or accessible to students as those offered by the Latex League.
L., a San Francisco-based company that provides personal products, prints instructions in vegetable ink on the recycled paper packaging to make it easier to recycle. Its condoms are also vegan and made without harsh chemicals, making them an eco-friendly — and pricier — choice. A pack of three is sold for $4.95 and a pack of six is $7.95, which doesn’t include shipping costs.
Although menstrual products such as tampons and pads can’t be recycled, there are other available options that don’t result in 7 billion plastic tampon applicators ending up in landfills each year, as they do now, according to Thinx, a company that creates no-leak period underwear. McCosker says women can use small cloths and rinse them out each day, but she admits “not everyone wants to walk around with a cloth between their legs” and recommends the Diva Cup, menstrual sponges or cloth pads, such as Glad Rags.
A Diva Cup collects menstrual fluid and is emptied a few times throughout the day. Both it and menstrual sponges can be reused for a few years and are available online and in certain stores, such as CVS, Walgreens and Target, but they aren’t as easily found on Ohio’s campus as tampons and pads.
Both CVS stores in Athens occasionally carry Diva Cups, but they’re stocked in very low quantities compared to the number of pads and tampons found on the shelves. Other alternative products, including Thinx’s period underwear and reusable tampon applicators (coming in March), are available online, but groups such as The Period Project are working to make those products more accessible to students.
The Period Project, an organization on campus that aims to donate feminine care products to those in need, is taking strides to increase students’ knowledge of and proximity to alternative menstrual products. Lydia Ramlo became the Period Project’s sustainability chair in 2016 and hopes to provide alternative options to students and others who can’t afford expensive menstrual products.
“The first step is to get this awareness going around, provide information about how to insert, clean it and everything,” she says. “… I’m hoping maybe in the following years, we can start donating products and hopefully donating to students and the LGBT center and everything. So, it’s a step-by-step process.”
Often, alternative options to traditional menstrual products have to be purchased online, which requires that students can afford to pay a higher price — plus shipping costs — up front. But Geneva Murray, director of the Women’s Center, says some may be hesitant to use cups and sponges because of the stigma of having to handle one’s own menstrual blood.
“Menstruation has a long history of being hushed, of not being discussed, and sustainable products require maintenance that forces one to think about menstruation, and, quite simply, to touch it,” she says.
In terms of sex toys, it would seem almost obvious that those can’t — or maybe shouldn’t — be recycled, but a company in the U.K. found a way to do it. Lovehoney, through its Rabbit Amnesty program, accepts domestically shipped vibrators and removes the circuit boards and batteries. Those are sent to a smelting company and turned into sheet steel, which could “become anything from a kettle to a reinforced steel joint to a cruise ship,” according to Lovehoney’s website. Unrecyclable rubber and plastic parts are sent to a power station to become fuel for generating electricity.
No U.S. rival — or environmental ally — exists yet, but Koons says something such as that could be a possibility at Ohio. But for now, he and the Latex League teach students about the importance of taking care of sex toys they already own through sex toy parties and the Safe and Sexy Social the group hosts.
“In our program, we always make sure we tell people how to clean sex toys safely so they can use it again. It’s not like you’d just use it once and get rid of it,” Koons says. “So, it’s something you could keep for a long time.”
Kirchner says people have the option to make choices that are better for the planet, from making currently owned products last longer to properly disposing of ones that can no longer be used.
“Individuals can make a huge difference,” Kirchner says. “So, whether you choose to recycle or compost or buy or use things that are recyclable or can be repurposed, it makes a difference.”