by Samantha Millette & Clarissa Morawski
If you’ve followed environmental news in the last year or so, then you know that the negative impact of single-use plastics has become a hot topic. From bans and taxes on plastic bags and takeaway coffee cups to policies on reduced plastics packaging, a growing number of countries, as well as companies in the private sector, are starting to take action to tackle plastic pollution. The European Parliament, most recently, voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics, including cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers, balloon sticks and polystyrene food and beverage containers. If approved, the EU’s Single Use Plastic Directive would be the most comprehensive piece of legislation yet to tackle plastic pollution.
But while the fight against single-use plastics like straws and shopping bags has become mainstream, one thing we don’t hear as much about (arguably because of the prevailing social taboo surrounding menstruation) are disposable feminine hygiene products and the impact of those on the environment.
However, the fact remains that menstrual products generate extraordinary amounts of waste. It has been estimated that an average woman disposes approximately 150 kilograms of tampons, pads, and applicators in her lifetime, around 90% of which is plastic. (This might come as a surprise to many, since unlike food products there is no legal obligation for menstrual product manufacturers to list ingredients on their packaging (although most of this information is available online)).
The great majority of these products end up in landfills (where it can take over 450 years for them to decompose), or worse, as litter on our beaches or polluting our oceans. In fact, menstrual products are one of the most commonly found single-use plastic items in marine litter. Data from the Marine Conservation Society shows that on average, 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste are found per 100 meters of beach cleaned; this amounts to 4 pads, panty-liners and backing strips, along with at least one tampon and applicator for every 100 meter of beach. Beyond the visible plastic debris, there is also the issue of microplastics, defined as pieces smaller than 5 millimeters. Although research on microplastics has been growing, much remains unknown about the exact impacts on human health or the environment.
What Other Solutions Are There?
As awareness of the world’s plastic problem has increased, so too has the interest in finding reusable non-plastic alternatives to traditional pads and tampons. Large retail chains like Walmart in the U.S. and Boots and Tesco in the U.K. now stock menstrual cups, and some companies report that sales have increased at double-digit rates over the last 10 years.
“Plastic-free” periods are also being popularized on social media, where innovative companies are capitalizing on consumers’ increased awareness of the plastic problem as a commercial opportunity to promote their “eco-friendly” products on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Aside from reusable, washable cloth pads, the menstrual cup was one of the first products to take-off as a reusable solution. There are a plethora of different brands that come in different shapes and sizes, but all of them are made of either rubber or medical grade silicone and work in a similar way; they are inserted into the vagina to “catch” rather than absorb menstrual blood. The most popular brands sell for about USD$35, making them a lot more expensive than a box of tampons or pads. However, with proper care, one cup can last up to ten years, which means significant savings over the long run.
Another alternative to traditional menstrual products is the reusable sea sponge. Menstrual sea sponges can be made of either synthetic materials or of all-natural sea sponge harvested from the ocean floor, the latter of which are biodegradable and compostable. The sponge works much like a tampon, and has to be removed and rinsed/cleaned every few hours. While they are cheaper than most menstrual cups (on average they cost between $12-$20 for a package of two), they don’t last as long and usually need to be replaced after six months or so.
Reusable, absorbable menstrual underwear are the latest thing to come onto the menstrual product market. Perhaps the most popular brand is THINX, which a few years ago ran an advertising campaign for the New York City subway. Period-proof underwear (or period panties) typically have absorbent cores made of cotton and waterproof material that allow women to go tampon or pad-free during light- to medium-days, or act as a back-up method. Like reusable menstrual cups, the initial upfront cost of the underwear is pricey (THINX panties range from $24 to $39 depending on the style). However, they are washable and reusable and can last up to two years.
Despite the fact that these products go along away in reducing plastic waste, not everyone is into them, which is where biodegradable and plastic-free disposable options come into play. One example is non-applicator tampons, or tampons, pads, and liners made of organic cotton and delivered in packaging that is compostable and/or plastic-free.
Currently, only about 5% of women are using reusable menstrual products. As with other single-use consumer products, the shift away from throw-away pads and tampons to reusable alternatives like cups or period-proof underwear won’t happen overnight. However, Mintel predicts that, over time, menstrual cups could disrupt the sanitary-product industry, which in the U.K. alone was estimated to be worth £265.8m ($350.4m) in 2017.