The feminine hygiene products we buy today could still be around in half a millennium. Outdated attitudes that attach stigma and shame to a natural bodily function have driven the market for increasingly disposable, and increasingly plastic products. By rethinking how we approach our periods we can support the environment, while rejecting outdated, sexist rhetoric around menstruation.
According to a study by CHOICE, the average woman could use 10,000 disposable menstrual products in a lifetime. The same study estimated that, due to the plastic content, a modern sanitary pad could take around 500 years to biodegrade in landfill, with the plastic applicators from tampons taking a similar amount of time.
Although periods are an inevitable fact of life, the environmental impact is not. Plastic components in period products have significantly risen in recent years. Pointless plastic on period products ranges from the plastic leak proof layer in many sanitary pads, to the plastic strings and applicators and tampons. The packaging of these products, which often come individually wrapped in plastic, is also a factor.
While this increased incidence of unnecessary plastic is alarming, the reasons behind the increase is perhaps more concerning. National Geographic published an overview of why period products became so plastic in the first place, and explores how heavily packaged and disposable products have beenlinked to a rhetoric that women should be ashamed of their periods, or even that periods somehow make women less efficient employees than their male counterparts.
This societal pressure to make periods invisible may also underpin environmentally problematic disposal solutions. Many women purchase scented plastic bags to discretely dispose of their period products, further adding to landfill. And although sanitary products are not designed to be flushed, they often are. In one enviromental study it was estimated 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet every day, in the UK alone.
As with any disposable product, the environmental impact after use is not the only factor. Resources used in making these products are not necessarily sustainable, and the manufacturing processes, storage, and transportation all add to the environmental cost of each product. Reusable products not only save on landfill, they also demand fewer resources in production. Even for those who aren’t ready to switch to a reusable product, switching to products made from sustainable materials can still be a small step in the right direction.
There can be a vast difference in environmental impact, even across disposable sanitary products. For example, while a plastic applicator could take 5 centuries to decompose, a cardboard applicator could take as little as two months. A significant difference for two applicators that do the exact 10 second job. Just by looking at the menstrual product you’re using, developing an awareness of the plastic content, and switching to another product, you can significantly reduce waste.
Biodegradable period products are becoming increasingly available, and can often be found on mainstream supermarket shelves. In addition to spending less time in landfill, many of these products are also free from certain chemicals that may contribute to groundwater pollution in landfill. Just remember, biodegradable products still shouldn’t be flushed.
The biggest step you can take to reduce period waste, is to ditch disposable period products altogether. There’s no shortage of waste free options available on the market. These include period underwear, washable cloth pads, or a menstrual cups. Although these options have a greater upfront cost, they are usually much cheaper than disposable products over the course of a lifetime. If you’ve already switched to a reusable product, and want to give another woman the opportunity to do so, you can donate a reusable product through the juju cup Share the Dignity initiative, or Modibodi’s Give a Pair scheme.
Useful websites to help you get started:
Guest author: Cheryl Edwards
This article is designed to give an overview of different resources available to help you with the Every Little Step Climate Initiative. Neither Inner West Mums or the author can personally endorse the products and services mentioned, and we always encourage you to do your own research before deciding if a product or service is right for you.