Garbage is yucky, but some of it is even yuckier than the rest. I’m talking about trash we create everyday: The waste that has to do with bodily functions. I’m talking about diapers, feminine products, and sneezed-into tissues.
Most of us probably throw these types of personal hygiene products into the trash without a second thought, but I couldn’t help wondering if there’s a greener way of dealing with it all — and I know I’m not alone in my pondering! We at Recyclebank have received many reader questions about these items.
In honor of those of you who may have been too embarrassed to ask, I’ve done the research for you about the most sustainable way of dealing with some of the ickiest waste. You’re welcome!
1. What’s the greenest way to dispose of diapers? If you are a parent or a caregiver — and even if, as a parent, you use primarily cloth diapers — chances are, you’re familiar with disposable diapers. Chances are you’ve also read how quickly they multiply in landfills: According to the EPA, an average baby goes through 8,000 diapers, and in 2013, 3.6 million tons of disposable diapers were thrown out. But for now, sadly, the trash-can is still the best way to dispose of both baby and adult diapers — for sanitation reasons, yes, but also because disposable diapers are often made of a combination of papers and plastics that are hard to separate for recycling. Let’s all hope that technologies like that from British company Knowaste, which recycles diapers and other waste, are soon available more widely. Until then, look into gDiaper inserts, which can be flushed or even composted at home, according to the company. As long as you’re using disposable diapers, you could also check out entirely compostable diapers, and local services like EarthBaby, a San Francisco diaper composting service. By the way, if you do use compostable diapers, #2 still needs to be flushed — human waste (or pet waste, for that matter) should not go into a compost pile for health reasons.
2. Can cotton swabs be composted? When you’re shopping for cotton swabs, opt for the ones made with paper sticks, such as Q-tips. They are biodegradable, so they can be composted (even with a little earwax on them). By the way, cotton balls are also compostable, as long as they’re free from non-compostable things (like nail polish remover).
3. Are tampon applicators recyclable? Even though they’re made of plastic or cardboard, tampon applicators are not recyclable because they’ve been contaminated with bodily fluids. Instead, find applicator-free options (and then see #4 below).
4. …how about the paper pull strips on pads? The waxy paper is usually coated with a silicon layer, which is what allows it to be pulled off the sanitary napkin without tearing the pad itself but may present issues during the recycling and paper-making process later on. Like stickers, sticky notes, or any other adhesives paper, whether it’s accepted varies widely by area — for example, you could recycle it in Philadelphia, but you might have to be more cautious throughout California — so check with your hauler.
5. And can used feminine hygiene products be composted? Some experts say that, if you have a worm composter, a used tampon can be composted. If you don’t, though, you should always throw a used tampon in the trash and, like “flushable” wipes, never, ever, flush it, even if the packaging claims it’s flushable (it makes sense that they wouldn’t break down in water — after all, they are designed to be absorbent). Better yet, use a reusable menstrual cup, and there’s nothing at all to throw away.
6. Are tissues biodegradable? I learned from the Kleenex website that, although their tissues are made with biodegradable cellulose fibers, they also have certain additives to make them stronger, so they won’t break down as quickly as, say, toilet paper. Because of that, the company recommends that their tissues be thrown in the trash. (The empty cardboard box, however, should definitely be recycled.) Others, however, swear by composting tissues, although some people point out that it isn’t a good idea to compost tissues that are full of germs from a bad cold. As for recycling, many recycling facilities request that you not put used tissues in the recycling bin: Thin tissuey papers (like tissues themselves) usually can’t be recycled because they are made with shorter paper fibers that will break down too much to become new paper, and, they also want to keep their workers safe from germs and disease.
7. Can hair trimmings and nail clippings be composted? Not only can human hair be composted, but it’s actually a great addition to your pile because it’s rich in nitrogen. (Pet hair can be composted, too.) Nail clippings can also be composted, as long as they’re free of polish.
8. Can medical sharps be trashed? Proper disposal of medical sharps varies from community to community, but for safety reasons, they should never be thrown in the trash. It’s a good idea to find a designated collection site instead. There are also mail-in and syringe exchange programs available, which help make sure everything is disposed of safely and soundly.