Week of 07/15/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that there is a lot of waste associated with tampons and sanitary pads and their packaging? Are there any environmentally friendly alternatives out there?

—C. Howard, Victoria, BC

Women of ancient cultures couldn’t buy feminine hygiene products at the supermarket or drugstore chain, so they improvised, fashioning them instead out of various natural and biodegradable materials—from papyrus and wool to grasses and vegetable fibers. Modern women, however, have relied on a variety of disposable products that create significant after-use waste and can also be dangerous to their health.

A typical American woman will use—and discard—as many as 16,000 tampons and their applicators over the course of her lifetime. The numbers for disposable sanitary pads run about twice as high. A 1998 study conducted by waste consultant Franklin Associates concluded that 6.5 billion tampons and 13.5 billion sanitary pads, plus their packaging, were ending up in U.S. landfills or sewer systems each year. Meanwhile, volunteers from the non-profit Ocean Conservancy collected more than 170,000 tampon applicators along American coastlines during a study conducted over a two-year period in 1998 and 1999.

On the health front, the sterile look of feminine hygiene products does not betray the fact that the chlorine dioxide used to whiten them can "theoretically generate dioxins at extremely low levels," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although the chlorine bleaching of tampons and pads has become considerably safer since the early 1990s, prior to which the process released some 250 different organochlorines into the environment and delivered a product laden with dioxin, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that no safe level for dioxin exposure exists.

Dioxin is 10 times more likely to cause cancer than was believed in 1994, says the EPA, and a lifetime of exposure to tampons, in particular, can mean a significant accumulation of toxins in a woman’s body and many non-cancer effects, including birth defects and child developmental delays. Additionally, tampons, because they interrupt the natural flow of blood, can facilitate bacteria growth and cause infection.

To address both the health and environmental issues associated with feminine products, a number of innovative companies offer alternatives. Gladrags, Natracare, Lunapads, Many Moons and Pandora Pads all make a wide range of cotton pads and other re-usable products free of toxic substances. And Jade and Pearl shapes natural sea sponges to fit a woman’s body, absorbing flow and likewise steering customers away from throwaway products made of bleached synthetic fibers.

Meanwhile, "The Keeper" is a reusable rubber cup designed to catch menstrual flow; its maker also sells a silicone version called the "Moon Cup" for those with sensitivities to rubber. Such products can last for up to 10 years before needing replacement and are approved by the U.S. FDA and Health Canada. Many of these healthier and environmentally friendly (and less costly) alternative products are available online as well as on the shelves of natural foods markets across North America.

CONTACTS: GladRags; Natracare; Lunapads; Many Moons Alternatives; Pandora Pads; The Keeper; Jade and Pearl

Dear EarthTalk: I visited New York City recently and could not believe the number of taxicabs on the streets. Are there any efforts to "green up" these vehicles? They must be real gas-guzzlers, considering all the idling and stop-and-go traffic they face.

—Justin Grant, Berkeley, CA

Just this past May, as part of a larger effort to make New York the "greenest major metropolis on the planet," Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an ambitious plan to switch over the city’s 13,000-vehicle taxi cab fleet from gas guzzling traditional cars to (comparatively) fuel-sipping gasoline-electric hybrids.

So far, 375 New York City cabs are hybrids, but Bloomberg wants that to rise to 1,000 by the end of 2008, with an additional 20 percent of the cab fleet going hybrid each year thereafter. The reason taxis are an ideal fit for hybrid technology is that they spend much time idling in traffic and while waiting to load passengers. Hybrid cars, which pair a conventional gas engine with an electric motor, essentially shut down when they are idling, minimizing emissions significantly. New York’s plan, once fully realized, is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions of the city’s taxi fleet by over 215,000 tons yearly.

And even though cabbies will have to pay a premium to replace their existing vehicles with hybrids, most are behind the move, as it will save them about $10,000 yearly in fuel costs alone. According to The New York Times, 90 percent of the city’s cab fleet is now made up of Ford Crown Victorias, which get only 10-15 miles per gallon (mpg) in city traffic. Ford’s own Escape hybrid would improve that to 34 mpg.

"I have been wanting to drive a hybrid taxi for years now," says Kwame Corsi, a cabbie from the Bronx. "Once this law allows us to drive hybrids, our gas mileage will skyrocket and our expenses will plummet. We pollute less and make more money—who can argue against that?" New York cabbies now ready to take the plunge can choose from any one of six different hybrid models, including the Ford Escape, Toyota’s Prius and Highlander, the Lexus RX 400H, and Honda’s Accord and Civic.

New York is not the first to go hybrid with its cab fleet. San Francisco took the plunge in 2005 when 40 Ford Escape hybrid taxis hit the streets there. San Francisco is also home to 140 Ford Crown Victoria cabs retrofitted to run on cleaner-burning compressed natural gas (CNG), which has been shown to reduce ozone-forming emissions by 80 percent as compared to traditional gasoline. The city’s goal is to have half its taxi fleet—some 600 vehicles—powered by cleaner-energy sources (either hybrids or CNG) by 2008.

And Chicago’s Carriage Cab Company just welcomed its first hybrid, also a Ford Escape. It is joined in the city by just one other hybrid, that of an independent operator who began taking fares in June in his Toyota Prius. Chicago has ordered taxi firms with over 50 cabs to add at least one hybrid to their fleets. The cities of Denver, Colorado and Boston, Massachusetts are also looking to make the transition.

And while hybrid taxis may be all the rage in San Francisco and New York now, such vehicles have been plying the streets of Vancouver, British Columbia since 2000, when cabbie Andrew Grant first started offering taxi rides in his Toyota Prius there. Today about a third of all the taxis in Vancouver are hybrids and local lawmakers recently announced that the city would approve only eco-friendly vehicles when handling applications for new taxi companies or additions to existing fleets.

CONTACTS: Andrew Grant’s "Hybrid Taxi Driver" Blog; New York City’s Taxi & Limousine Commission