Nova Scotia

That tampon applicator you just flushed could end up on a beach

Despite improvements in sewage treatment, Halifax-area beaches are still littered with plastic tampon applicators

Despite improvements in sewage treatment, Halifax-area beaches are still littered with plastic applicators

A recent beach cleanup at Turtle Grove in Dartmouth, N.S., collected 381 plastic tampon applicators in a 150-metre stretch of beach. (Simon Ryder-Burbidge)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group

From a distance, Lawlor Island looks pristine.

But even though it's part of a provincial park, the small island in the mouth of Halifax harbour is not as unspoiled as it may first appear.

Lawlor Island is part of McNabs and Lawlor Islands Provincial Park. It is intended as a natural area that is not generally open to the public. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Pieces of plastic dot the shoreline — fishing rope, bottles, caps, lids, coffee cups and lots of plastic tampon applicators.

"We do our beach cleanups every year … and we always find plastic tampon applicators," said Cathy McCarthy of the Friends of McNabs Island Society. "These applicators may be small and some people may think they're insignificant, but they're not."

Plastic, wood and metal litter the shoreline of Lawlor Island. (Frances Willick/CBC)

During a recent beach cleanup at Turtle Grove in Dartmouth, N.S., volunteers found 381 plastic tampon applicators in a 150-metre stretch of shoreline.

Mark Butler, the policy director of the Ecology Action Centre, helped pick up garbage along the shore.

"I've done quite a few beach cleanups now, and frankly, I'm tired of cleaning up other people's garbage," he said. "We need to come up with a better solution."

The problem is not as bad as it used to be, McCarthy said.

Cathy McCarthy is a longtime volunteer with the Friends of McNabs Island Society. (Frances Willick/CBC)

Friends of McNabs has been cleaning up McNabs, the larger of the two islands that form McNabs and Lawlor Islands Provincial Park, since 1991.

"We used to find them by the hundreds and thousands," McCarthy said. "They would all float up onto the islands ... and they would just litter the beaches everywhere."

When the municipality built five wastewater treatment plants about 10 years ago, McCarthy thought that would solve the problem. But it didn't.

Plastic tampon applicators get washed up on the shores of Lawlor Island, near Dartmouth, N.S. (Frances Willick/CBC)

Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell said plastic tampon applicators could still be ending up on beaches because they're carried in by tides or are flushed by recreational boaters or people on commercial vessels. During very heavy rainfalls, they may spill over Halifax Water's screens, Campbell said, but "those would be very rare events."

Campbell said regardless of the source, applicators should never be flushed down the toilet.

Garbage, including plastic tampon applicators, floats in a pumping station near Point Pleasant Park in south-end Halifax. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

"They should be going directly in the garbage can," he said. "Wastewater treatment plants are designed to treat human waste and toilet paper only. Why people continue to flush these down the toilet is a great mystery to us."

The plastic applicators — and anything else that doesn't belong in the wastewater treatment system — are screened out, shredded and sent to the landfill.

Alternatives to plastic applicators

People who menstruate could use thousands of tampons over a lifespan, so regardless of whether applicators end up in a landfill or on beaches, the amount of waste produced can be significant.

McCarthy wonders why plastic tampon applicators are even necessary.

"Why not just not use them? Because it's another plastic thing we don't need," she said. "Plastic just doesn't go away. It lasts in our environment for hundreds of years."

There are alternatives to plastic applicators.

Silicone or latex menstrual cups are available as an alternative to tampons with plastic applicators. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

Some widely available tampons have cardboard applicators, while others have no applicator at all. An online crowdfunding campaign is underway to manufacture a reusable tampon applicator.

Reusable cups made of silicone or latex are available, as well leakproof underwear, sponges and reusable pads.

Alternatives to tampons with plastic applicators include tampons with no applicators or cardboard applicators, reusable cups, sponges, leakproof underwear and cloth pads. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

Butler said the actions of individuals to reduce plastic use and clean the environment do make a difference. But he said governments and corporations also have a role to play.

"We need systems change," he said. 

"And I think definitely part of it is to make corporations responsible for the stuff they make. And if they're responsible through to the end of its life cycle, it's going to change how they think about things and what they design."

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