Single-use plastic is often in the headlines. We are encouraged to opt for bamboo drinking straws and re-usable shopping bags – but our use of single-use menstrual products rarely gets mentioned. In 2018, in the U.S., women bought 5.8 billion tampons – the waste is colossal! What are the alternatives to putting them in the trash? Are tampons biodegradable and can they be composted?
What are tampons made from? Do tampons contain plastic?
The exact materials that tampons are made from vary from brand to brand. Generally, tampons are made from cotton and/or rayon (a man-made cellulosic fiber derived from plants). Plastics are also a key ingredient for some brands. Often a layer of polyethylene or polypropylene can be found in the main part of the tampon and even in the string. The tampon applicators, the tube that helps with insertion, are generally made from plastic or cardboard.
However, thankfully, there are more and more eco-friendly brands coming onto the market which have fewer/or even no synthetic ingredients at all.
So, are tampons biodegradable?
An item is biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Items made from natural materials, in essence, can return to nature.
As you may have guessed, some tampons are biodegradable and some are not – it depends on what they are made of. Those made of cotton and/or rayon will biodegrade. However, if any plastic is present in the tampon this part will not biodegrade. Plastics will break down eventually into smaller and smaller pieces, but this is not the same as biodegradation. It does not return to nature – it simply gets smaller and can cause chaos in the environment. In terms of the applicator, the plastic variety won’t biodegrade but the cardboard variety will.
It is useful to note that, as with all biodegradable items, optimal conditions are vital for biodegradation. Landfill is not just a massive compost pile like people sometimes imagine. Poor airflow and moisture levels make the breakdown process significantly slower than breakdown figures quoted. Keep this in mind when you throw any biodegradable item in the trash – even your biodegradable tampons could still be around for a much longer time than you’d expect!
Can tampons be composted? Even used ones?!
Composting is a great way for disposing of waste – whilst creating a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden. Its no surprise that it is becoming more and more popular as households seek to minimize their impact on the planet. It is a common misconception that if an item is biodegradable that it automatically qualifies for the compost bin. This is, unfortunately, not the case. ‘Biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are not the same thing. A biodegradable item will be excluded if, say, it contains chemicals or other substances that will contaminate the pile.
Tampons can be composted if made from purely biodegradable materials. However, if you use brands that still opt for plastic, they will only partially breakdown. Although the parts of the tampon made from the natural ingredients will biodegrade, the plastic parts won’t and will live on in your compost pile forevermore…
There is conflicting advice on the topic of composting used tampons. But, used tampons can be composted – in fact, blood is a great source of minerals for your pile. However, it is important to consider that blood (straight from the body – and not treated in any way) is a biological waste. Menstrual blood contains bacteria and could potentially contain pathogens that you don’t really want to be adding. Our advice? Err on the side of caution – add the final product to ornamental plants rather than edible ones…
Considerations when composting tampons…
Firstly, as when composting anything, it is a good idea to cut up the tampon into small pieces. This allows it to be mixed throughout the pile, but also gives the composting bacteria more surface area to work its magic on. If you are unable to do this, don’t worry, it is not absolutely necessary – they will just take a little bit longer to break down.
As you might know – composting materials can be split into two main types. ‘Green’ materials refer to items that are rich in nitrogen such as coffee grounds and fresh grass clippings. ‘Browns’ are rich in carbon and include items such as linen. Used tampons have an element of both. The cotton and rayon are carbon rich, so fall neatly into the ‘brown’ category. However, the fresh blood adds a ‘green’ element.
It is important to ensure you have an adequate mixture of both ‘browns’ and ‘greens’ in your compost pile. As with all composting, a bit of trial-and-error is required, but you won’t go far wrong with a 1:1 ratio. Monitor it and adjust as you go. If you take the correct steps to make sure your compost pile is healthy, you should find composting tampons quite a simple process. However, if you are new to composting, we have answered some of the most common newbie questions here to help you on your way.
The bottom line
Diverting waste from landfill is a great way to reduce your impact on the planet. If you do not want to use re-usable options just yet, using plastic-free tampons and adding them to the compost pile will cut your monthly menstruation waste significantly. As far as composting goes, tampons are fairly straightforward – just cut them up and mix them in. Voila.