To flush or not to flush
March 22, 2008 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Woman Filter: So a girlfriend of mine and I just discovered that we've been operating under contradicting information about whether it's okay to flush tampons!

I thought that you never, ever flush them. She's been operating under the assumption that it's only not okay to flush them into a septic system, but otherwise it's okay. Does anyone have any expert knowledge about this? Google was only helpful in terms of getting personal perspectives.
posted by crunchtopmuffin to Grab Bag (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have no expert knowledge, but I've never heard of NOT flushing them.
posted by meerkatty at 8:33 PM on March 22, 2008


I've been on two trips to a sewage treatment plant (not my choice.. high school field trips) and the owner went on a rant about flushing tampons (and how it should be made illegal)... we could also see them floating around in the water tanks. It was pretty gross. Although i don't have any informative links for you, I can tell you that no, you should NOT flush tampons, it clogs up the workings of the treatment plants.
posted by Planet F at 8:34 PM on March 22, 2008


Yeah, don't flush em. They are trash. At the sewage treatment plants, there is a filter that is used to filter out the trash before it is treated, but still - it's trash. You wanna know what they call the filter that catches that trash? - The bell and whistle filter - the bells being condoms and the whistles being the tampons.
posted by bigmusic at 8:38 PM on March 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Okay, just found this on Tampax.com. But I'm not sure if we can trust this since they're trying to sell products 'n all. And no mention of biodegradability. Still interested in other opinions.
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 8:39 PM on March 22, 2008


I had always thought they were okay to flush, at least into a sewer system. Then I moved into an apartment building where the drainage pipes got blocked by tampons someone had flushed (fortunately the layout of the place meant there was no way they were mine). The maintenance guy was pretty certain about what had caused the problem. And the lease where I am now specifically forbids flushing tampons.
posted by dilettante at 8:40 PM on March 22, 2008


In a lot of countries you can't, but this is America damn't, flush away!
posted by whoaali at 8:41 PM on March 22, 2008


I was always told not to flush tampons. This could be incorrect. Maybe it's an old wives' tale.

Once, when my sister and I still lived with the parents, the plumber had to come out and said our toilet was jammed with tampons. We were retold not to flush tampons.

Every public restroom I visit has a little bin for tampons and pads. I thought it was common knowledge not to flush them. Although, I have recently learned that people outside of the US flush tampons without plumbing problems. Lucky they are.
posted by LoriFLA at 8:41 PM on March 22, 2008


Plumbers have their own favorite term for flushed tampons: the red rat. Tampon clogs bring them lots of business, so much business that I'm sure that there's a bass boat named "Red Rat" in every state of the union.

Tampons who like to stay close to home will clog your toilet. Adventurous tampons will travel on to clog up your municipal waste system. A few bright shining stars will start out to sea only to be washed up on a public beach, where someone's toddler will light up with glee because Mommy! I founded a mouse with a red nose!

99.8% of tampons are made of non-biodegradable material, and they have to go somewhere after you flush them. If you're unlucky, or you have older pipes, they'll clog up the works. If they don't, they'll move on, but they'll turn up somewhere else.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:45 PM on March 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


Don't flush them; they'll clog up the sewerage system, as others above have said. Here's a handy list of non-flushable items.
posted by hot soup girl at 9:00 PM on March 22, 2008


Oh the horror of semi-flushed tampons. I used to live with a roommate who would always try to flush tampons. The brand she used seemed to swell up a lot immediately upon hitting the water. I usually got up in the morning after she did, so I would *frequently* be forced to come up with novel ways to fish them out from where they were stuck halfway in the drain. I tried many times to convince her that flushing didn't work, but I was never successful.

Currently, the female staff at my office is up in arms against the management company of our offices because the women's restroom is constantly out of order. Management is exasperated in return because they say that all of the bathroom clogs are due to flushed tampons and I believe them.
posted by otolith at 9:04 PM on March 22, 2008


I was taught to not flush them. And I've been yelled at (well, lectured) by building maintenance guys (in college, it was a suite, I was not responsible for the flushin) who came to unclog our toiled about not flushing. So I say, don't flush.
posted by rtha at 9:14 PM on March 22, 2008


From the o.b. brand tampons site:

Q.Can I flush o.b. tampons?

A. Yes. The components of o.b.® Tampons should be flushable in all types of plumbing systems in good working order EXCEPT SEPTIC SYSTEMS. Test results from the U.S. consistently show that these tampons pass easily through unobstructed systems. The testing is in line with the National Plumbing Code which specifies a minimum inside diameter of the pipe of 3 inches. Also, any additional pipe in the flushing system should not feed into a pipe of smaller diameter. The material used in the piping can also affect the flushability of solid material. Materials that are very smooth will facilitate the flushing process.

posted by louche mustachio at 9:15 PM on March 22, 2008


327 or so comments on the flush/do not flush dilemma
posted by mynameisluka at 9:16 PM on March 22, 2008


If you're concerned about the environmental aspect, you might try the diva cup instead of tampons.
posted by judith at 9:21 PM on March 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


The Museum of Menstruation also provides some contradictory, though entertaining, information. Most of the pamphlets, however, are produced by tampon and pain relief companies who want your burgeoning womanhood dollars.

An alternative method of disposal

A previous, similar question, with some sensible answers.

I think that the most correct answer is not to flush them - unless you know the pipes can handle it or don't mind being scolded by plumbers, which has never happened to me or anything but I imagine would be really really embarassing.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:44 PM on March 22, 2008


I always thought you weren't supposed to flush them, and that is why they have those metal bins with covers and paper bags inside a lot of the public and corporate bathroom stalls.
posted by gt2 at 9:54 PM on March 22, 2008


My roommates girlfriend once backed up the toilet doing that, dripping gross water all over the downstairs neighbors and rendering our only bathroom unusable for days. Why risk it?
posted by meta_eli at 9:56 PM on March 22, 2008


definitely don't flush. The women in the apartment who used to live next to me flushed and all of her 'stuff' plugged up the plumbing and backed up into my shower. Nasty.
posted by AsRuinsAreToRome at 9:57 PM on March 22, 2008


judith: If you're concerned about the environmental aspect, you might try the diva cup instead of tampons.

Also:

Keeper
Mooncup
Lunette

(My preference is Lunette over Diva Cup. Haven't tried the other two.)

Once you start to think about the implications of flushing (or throwing away) all those tampons, there really is no sensible rationale to continue.)
posted by loiseau at 10:17 PM on March 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Anecdotal evidence: I've been flushing tampons since I was 13 years old and it's never caused a plumbing problem. The thing that isn't flushable is the applicator.
posted by amyms at 10:25 PM on March 22, 2008


i have never had a problem flushing them, although i only use the smallest size, so ymmv.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:47 PM on March 22, 2008


The thing that isn't flushable is the applicator.

I was taught as a teen that the cardboard applicators were fine to flush, but the tampons themselves were not. I just checked the Tampax website, and they claim that the wrappers, tampons, and cardboard applicators are all flushable. However, the claims about the flushability of the plastic-applicator variations (like the pearl) vary.

I never flush tampons for fear of clogging the pipes, but it didn't save me as an awkward and embarassed teenager. Something clogged the pipes in our house, and my sister and I were forced to sit through a completely horrifying lecture from my dad about how we shouldn't flush tampons. I still secretly blame her for that uncomfortable experience.
posted by vytae at 10:58 PM on March 22, 2008


I used to work at a music venue and we were constantly calling the plumber over flushed tampons, even though we provided a can in every stall for disposable.

I don't have any science to back it up, but I would think twice before flushing something that's specifically designed to block fluid.
posted by greenland at 11:18 PM on March 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Used to go camping when I was a kid about seventy miles up the coast from where I grew up. My home town, to this day, does not have sewage treatment. So guess what we kids found on the beach when we went camping? That's right: used tampons. Don't flush 'em.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:35 AM on March 23, 2008


Another shout out for the diva cup - never worry about the "Should I flush?" dilemma again!
posted by platinum at 12:36 AM on March 23, 2008


Holy crap! I've been flushing tampons for 33 years having never EVER heard it was bad for plumbing systems. How can that have happened?!?
posted by DawnSimulator at 12:36 AM on March 23, 2008


The bins in washrooms are for plastic applicators, used pads, and the god knows how many pieces of plastic wrapping that period products come housed in. Flushing pads is like flushing a diaper, but flushing tampons is fine if not on a septic system. Municipal water systems are designed to sift through all the shit that comes down the pipes - including all kinds of stuff that people flush that isn't waste - condoms, toilet paper, tissues, paper towels, baby wipes, and all kinds of other crazy stuff. I have done tours of water treatment centers and while the workers there noted all the debris that came with the wastewater, I've been told on more than one occasion that flushing tampons is fine. It's the rest of it - the applicators, the plastic wrappers, or even pads, which cause problems.

While reducing on an individual basis is admirable, tampons are not the worst thing getting introduced into the water system. People will blame tampons on problems that have more to do with outdated, poor plumbing and pipes than anything else. I think it's far more sensible to upgrade old plumbing in public buildings than to rely on what is frankly a not terribly hygenic solution - having women discard blood waste (what would in any other context require a red biohazard waste container for proper disposal) into an open, unclean, and usually overflowing container full of other people's blood waste products. Sorry, but we can do better than that.

Besides, even with a little bucket next to the toilet these used tampons are still just going to a landfill, so they might just still wash up on shore somewhere - the argument that flushing is irresponsible even when not causing a clog is sheer bullshit especially considering they have to go somewhere eventually no matter how they are disposed of. The damage/blockage that condoms cause is much worse since they are rubber and do not break down further as tampons are designed to. Alternate products require access to a private sink otherwise we will have groups of women standing at sinks together washing out their bloody collection devices (sea sponge tampons, diva cups/keepers, etc) in the place where we wash our hands. This again is not safe practice regarding blood disposal. And these alternative methods are not workable options for many women for reasons other than the communal blood squick factor - physically, financially or situationally these are often simply not a choice. I applaud those who make the effort to use products which are more environmentally responsible but remind them that it's a privilege they enjoy, not an obligation for everyone.
posted by SassHat at 1:13 AM on March 23, 2008 [11 favorites]


When I was young we had to have a lot of work done on our plumbing system because the college girls who lived there before us had been flushing their tampons. The plumber pulled out several big disgusting clots of them.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:48 AM on March 23, 2008


Do NOT do NOT do NOT flush them. Tampax has a cardboard applicator, which supposedly will fall into spirally pieces, so you could maybe flush that, but don't flush the tampons. I'm surprised to find any dissenting opinions on this from anyone who has ever lived in a house, because even with city water and sewer, I have always heard it is a big no-no, and growing up with a septic system, I wouldn't even have considered flushing them, no way no how!
posted by misha at 7:16 AM on March 23, 2008


If you flush a tampon at my house, you will pay for the plumber. I don't flush them anymore.
posted by acorncup at 7:41 AM on March 23, 2008


My wife works as a secretary at the main water treatment plant here in Savannah and says that tampons aren't a danger to the plant. They can screw up your plumbing, but for the actual sewage process, they're don't interfere.

There are many ways to treat wastewater, but the primary method used in Savannah is secondary aerobic digestion (diagramed here). After leaving your house/office/whatever, the waste enters the sewer lines, which are designed to keep it moving through the pipes at about 2 feet per second. Why? Because there are solids in it and they don't want to give the solids a chance to settle. The lines are at an angle, so gravity does most of the work of keeping things moving, though there are various lift stations throughout the city. These stations raise the water to a higher level so gravity can contain it's magic and keep the water flowing to the plant. Of course there are filters for trash and debris and this where the tampons are captured, along with everything else, and lifted out and taken to the landfill. They get all types of trash, the occasional alligator and even a body once, back in the early '90s but one of the oddest is paper money. How does it get in the system? No on knows and the operators don't care, they can just pluck it out, take it home and run it through a washer and it's as good as new. Evidently this is not uncommon as you think.

After that initial major filtering, the water is slowed down, allowing more of the grit to sink to the bottom. This grit is mostly just left over minerals from your body, say like salt or iron. Yeah, that body needs a certain amount of that stuff, but the excess is eliminated along with other wastes when you go to the bathroom and are collected at the plant, then taken to a landfill.

From there the water is moved to another tank to allow even more settling and floatable material to separate. Then it's moved to Aeration Basins, where bacteria (called Bugs for some reason) are allowed to feast on the remaining material, breaking the waste down to it's baser components. After eating, the bugs are moved to another tank where they're allowed to settle to the bottom and then moved moved back to the previous tanks so they can eat more. These bugs multiply fast, so there's always excess bugs which are taken out of the process at this point and brought to the plant incinerator and burned.

Then the water is chlorinated to remove most of the last bit of stuff and at this point is mostly safe, though not used for drinking water. It is used by golf courses and other places to water the lawn and a person probably could drink it and be ok, but there's still a good chance that they could get sick. The water could be further treated to be completely safe, and some plants in more water challenged places might actually do so, but most people wig out at the thought of drinking recycled waster water, so it isn't commonly done. Some of this water is also piped into a large fish tank in the front office, as safety measure. If the fish start dying, they quickly know something is wrong the process and can start investigating. This hasn't happened for years, so things are good.

So yeah, you can flush tampons if you want, won't hurt the water treatment plants, but it could seriously screw up your plumbing.

The one thing you never, ever want to flush or put down the drain is grease. It can seriously clog up the sewage line, to the point where they have to shut it down and, take apart the line and clean out before restarting the process.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:17 AM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


SassHat: Alternate products require access to a private sink otherwise we will have groups of women standing at sinks together washing out their bloody collection devices (sea sponge tampons, diva cups/keepers, etc) in the place where we wash our hands. This again is not safe practice regarding blood disposal. And these alternative methods are not workable options for many women for reasons other than the communal blood squick factor - physically, financially or situationally these are often simply not a choice. I applaud those who make the effort to use products which are more environmentally responsible but remind them that it's a privilege they enjoy, not an obligation for everyone.

With all due respect SassHat, that's incorrect. You can empty a menstrual cup without water. It can be wiped out and re-inserted if you can't get to a sink.

And $35 for 5+ years of service is much, much, much cheaper than $10/month, every month. The cost factor, if nothing else, is simply and without question in the menstrual cup's favour.
posted by loiseau at 9:38 AM on March 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Tampons will end up in the landfill whether they get there via the sewage treatment process or the garbage (unless you have a septic system of course). The main question is whether or not they have the opportunity to clog up some pipes along the way. If you're in my house, please don't flush them unless you're financially dependent on my plumber (and even then, please don't.)

Thanks to the divacup, it's not a decision I've had to make for years now. And no, using one does not require access to a private sink, as loiseau points out.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:41 AM on March 23, 2008


An apartment complex I was managing had roots growing through the pipe leading out to the main sewage line. Note: that's not a small pipe. Yet enough material would periodically get snagged there to create a heinous sewage backups in the 1st floor units. Inevitably, when the plumber extracted the clog it was composed of 98% tampons, 1% roots, 1% misc other (who the hell flushes a Snickers wrapper??).

Several friends live in 100+ years old homes. So the toilets' water pressure isn't great, and the nature/condition of the pipes makes them easy to clog. Flushing more than 4 or 6 squares of TP at a time, let alone some ultra-absorbant material like tampon, would be Not Cool.

Lesson: while tampons may be flushable in theory, the practicality of doing so depends muchly on the assumption that a given plumbing system is in tip-top shape. You know what they say about assumptions.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:43 AM on March 23, 2008


Using the Keeper for five years now. Never once rinsed it out in a communal sink.
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:08 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


My girlfriend's parents' toilet has been clogged on at least three occasions that I know of when someone has tried to flush a tampon. I think one of those may have required the intervention of a plumber.
posted by oaf at 6:44 PM on March 23, 2008


To keeper/cup users, apologies on the washing out factor, I was told at some point that you have to give them a rinse after dumping the blood itself into the toilet, so I've always worked on the assumption that's the way it worked. You learn something new every day.

However, I stand my statement that they simply are not an option for many women - there are many parts of the world where they just aren't available, because there aren't stores that carry them (yes including large parts of North America). Buying them online is an option for some but that requires a) internet and b) a credit card, which aren't a given depending on your circumstances. While they may be cheaper in the long term, we can't pretend they are anything but a rarity and an indulgence that many women cannot afford. Perhaps DivaCup or one of the other manufacturers could start a charitable campaign to give them away to women who can't afford them. I would certainly donate to it - god knows tampons/pads are expensive and saving that every month could really help if you're just scraping by. Still, there are also many women for whom cups etc are not physically an option, so I guess they would still be stuck using traditional pads/tampons.

Overall I just think that women shouldn't be made to feel guilty about a natural body function, and I find that the "you're destroying the planet with your uterine lining!" is just as bad as "your tampon ruined our septic system" in that regard.
posted by SassHat at 8:12 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


SassHat (and others): you can donate reusable menstrual supplies here - Goods4Girls.org Right now, they are primarily supplying reusable cloth pads, but may add menstrual cups as the need arises. (Sorry if this is a thread derail, but I think it's for a worthy purpose...)
posted by judith at 9:20 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The FAQ at the goods4girls.org website has this to say:

Why are you focusing on reusable menstrual pads and not menstrual cups like the DivaCup or the Keeper?

Because of potential hygiene issues, using a reusable menstrual product that gets inserted into the body requires additional education and "processing" such as cleaning the cup with boiled water. Additionally, we are culturally sensitive to potential taboos with young girls using an insertable product.

We are looking into the distribution of menstrual cups to some community members (older women who are interested), but at this point, we are focusing on menstrual pads. If an interest in the cups develops we'll be available to help in raising the funds for them and distributing the cups.

posted by eclectist at 11:44 PM on March 23, 2008


flushing tampons is fine if not on a septic system

This is just not true (and shouldn't be marked as best answer). The toilet I mention above is not on a septic system or in a hundred-year-old house.

You absolutely should not flush tampons if you are in someone else's home and haven't asked first whether it's OK.
posted by oaf at 4:28 AM on March 24, 2008


another recommendation for a cup (Diva, Keeper, etc.)---then you don't have to worry about flushing or putting pesticide-treated cotton inside you
posted by hulahulagirl at 6:19 PM on March 24, 2008


A little late in here, I know, but a useful statistic: a cleanup in Halifax, Nova Scotia last fall of 125 metres (410 feet) of shoreline netted 124 plastic tampon applicators. Halifax is just now preparing to treat its sewage, which is unusually gross for such a large city, and when it starts, most of this stuff will clog the plants instead of the shoreline. Still, that's one tampon applicator per metre of shoreline. That's really disgusting. Please don't flush your tampons.
posted by Dasein at 9:33 PM on March 24, 2008


flushing tampons is fine if not on a septic system

This is just not true (and shouldn't be marked as best answer).


I just noticed this. Please listen to oaf. The best answer is not the one you want to hear. This is a recurrent problem on AskMe.

Your plumbing does not need to be outdated for tampons to cause a problem. Even if this were the case, you have no idea what the plumbing is like between the inside of your house and the septic plant. You could have tree roots in your front yard; you could have bad city plumbing. You could be flushing to an older sewage plant. The poster seems to think that because they end up in a landfill anyway, it's okay to flush them. But that's the whole point - if everything goes well, and they clog nothing, then all you're doing is making their journey to a landfill much more expensive and problematic for the city, which has to screen them out of sewage. The fact that flushing condoms is also a dumb idea doesn't make flushing tampons a good one. Don't do it!
posted by Dasein at 9:46 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dropping back in to nth the plumbing-doesn't-have-to-be-old thing. In my comment above, the dorm I was in was new - it'd been built a year earlier, and still, one of my suitemates managed to clog the toilet with flushed tampons. The maintenance guy who came to fix it told me it was an ongoing problem in all of the college's dorms, from the 19th century ones to the brand-new ones.
posted by rtha at 9:29 AM on March 25, 2008


For the record... SassHat's answer was bested due to it pointing out that under any other circumstance, blood waste is considered biohazard waste and it must go in a special bin. I had never thought of this point before and I think it demonstrates the need to revamp current tampon/pad disposal systems in public bathrooms!

Even with all this discussion, I'm still personally of the mind that you shouldn't flush them - ever.

Thanks for all the thoughtful responses!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 8:27 PM on March 25, 2008


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