By: Sara Boderos
Our society has evolved substantially the last few decades, yet menstruation remains a taboo subject; something that we rather not talk about and usually keep in the dark. Perhaps, this is also the reason behind why we barely discuss the environmental impact of menstrual products.
Although a menstrual pad or tampon might seem like a small and inconsequential thing, it can have a substantial effect both on an individual’s health but also on the environment. Calculated on an average lifetime menstruation, an individual with a period uses approximately 9,000 to 10,000 tampons in their life. In result, an average individual with a period throws away up to 136 kilograms of menstrual products in their life (Matthews, 2021). Since the majority of menstrual products are packaged in plastic wrapping, they produce more than 200,000 metric tons of waste every year and can take approximately 500 to 800 years to biodegrade (Rodriquez, 2021). But that is not the only issue related to menstrual products.
For instance, in North America, approximately 20 billion menstrual products are sent to landfills annually. Landfills are one of the top origins of methane emissions which, according to United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), are more critical that we originally thought. IPCC has pointed out that it is not enough to merely cut down on carbon dioxide emissions in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, since methane emissions (another type of heat trapping greenhouse gas) has to be reduced as well (Matthews, 2021). In addition, if these materials are burned, the disinfected, chlorinated and bleached pulp ingredients can end up in our food-cycle. This does not only harm the environment, but also natural species (Tu et.al. 2021).
Moreover, the production of menstrual products also does harm to the environment. Through the life cycle assessment of tampons that was carried out by the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden to discover their ecological footprint, it was found that the largest impact originated from the production of plastic tampon applicators and the plastic piece on the back of menstrual pads. These plastic pieces are made out of a type of thermoplastic called low-density polythene (LDPE). The production of these type of plastic components on tampons and pads involves substantial amount of fossil fuels, and a years’ worth of menstrual products has a carbon footprint of approximately 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents (Matthews, 2021).
Additonally, menstrual products also harm our ocean and wildlife. On average, litter pickers find around 6 pieces of waste every 100 meters originating from menstrual products, which is equivalent to around 2 million items when outlined against the UK coastline (Natracare, 2022). These products end up on the beaches through people flushing tampons and applicators in the toilet. Even if it’s not a good option for the products to end up in the landfill instead, it is better than the product ending up in the ocean. Due to the chemicals and plastics, the products can severely injure the wildlife and accumulate in the ecosystem which in the future can increase our exposure to phthalates, dioxins etc. (Matthews, 2021).
So what can you do?
To stop using menstrual products is not an option and I believe that everyone with a period can agree on that, but there are things you could do.
First things first; stop flushing down your menstrual products in the toilet! Maybe not everyone is in the need of that reminder, but as the image above proves, there are still people that needs to take a lesson in garbage disposal.
Continuing, there are a lot of alternatives to single-use products on the market. First, a reusable pad made out of fabric can be an alternative. However, its impact is strongly dependent on how you wash it: which type of wash machine, chosen temperature, wash load and type of detergent. If the reusable pad, on the other hand, is washed in a water and energy efficient manner, it does have a lower environmental impact than single-use products (Life Cycle Initiative, 2021).
If the reusable pad is not your cup of tea, the reusable menstrual cup is an even greater alternative. Since a menstrual cup is approximated to have a life span of 10 years, it has less than 1% of the impact that a single-use product has. Even if the sterilization of the products is included in the calculation (such as boiling it or washing it with soap) it still has a significantly lower impact than the single-use alternatives (Life Cycle Initiative, 2021).
Not convinced yet?
As pointed out above, reusable options have a much less impact on the environment, but to make you even more motivated to switch to reusable alternatives, I also want to mention the health factor.
As one might guess, the chemicals incorporated in conventional tampon are not exactly healthy for our bodies either. According to Satish (2021) the material in menstrual products can contain around 0.1 and 1 part trillion dioxin, which is not only harmful for the environment, but also for our bodies. Even if the levels of dioxins in the products are regulated, it has yet to be proven if it is harmless for our health. In addition, even a small amount of dioxin can be extremely toxic for humans. For instance, The World Health Organisation has stated that “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer” (WHO, 2016, cited in Satish, 2021, para. 3).
If you are yet to be convinced, I will also provide you with some financial facts. Depending on the length, regularity and amount, the average person who menstruates uses approximately 12 tampons and 4-5 pads each month. This results in an annual expense of $150. By using a reusable menstrual cup or reusable pad instead, you can save up to $6000 in a lifetime (CSUN Sustainability, n.d.), and perhaps buy yourself something nice instead.
In conclusion, even a small inconsequential thing like a tampon, can in the long run make a substantial impact on our environment. Luckily, there are great alternatives on the market that not only makes less of an impact on the environment but also on your health and wallet. As the quote says, one cannot do everything, but everyone can do something.
When I started to think about topics to write about, I didn’t even consider the environmental impact of menstrual products; I just happened to find it when browsing through the internet. At first, I just considered it to be funny to write about something that is considered taboo, but it ended with a serious eye-opener. Menstrual protection is an absolute necessity, which perhaps is why I haven’t considered its environmental impact. After this blogpost, my mindset has definitely changed and next time I go shopping for menstrual protection, I will certainly consider the consequences.
CSUN Sustainability. n.d. Sustainable Menstruation Initiative. [online] Available at: <https://www.csun.edu/sustainability/sustainable-menstruation-initiative> [Accessed 30 March 2022].
Life Cycle Initiative. 2021. Menstrual products and sustainable alternatives report 2021 – Life Cycle Initiative. [online] Available at: <https://www.lifecycleinitiative.org/menstrual-products-and-sustainable-alternatives-report-2021/> [Accessed 14 March 2022].
Matthews, L., 2021. Are Tampons Bad for the Environment? [online] LeafScore. Available at: <https://www.leafscore.com/eco-friendly-bath-products/environmental-impact-of-menstrual-products/> [Accessed 14 March 2022].
Natracare. 2022. Turning the Tide on Plastic Period Waste. [online] Available at: <https://www.natracare.com/blog/turning-the-tide-on-plastic-period-waste/> [Accessed 14 March 2022].
Rodriguez, L., 2021. Which Period Products Are Best for the Environment? [online] Global Citizen. Available at: <https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/best-period-products-for-the-environment/> [Accessed 14 March 2022].
Satish, A., 2021. The Potential Long Term Effects of Tampons[online] OSF. Available at: <https://osf.io/ts4c3/> [Accessed 30 March 2022].
Tu, J., Lo, T. and Lai, Y., 2021. Women’s Cognition and Attitude with Eco-Friendly Menstrual Products by Consumer Lifestyle. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(11), p.5534.
Unicef. 2018. Reusable Menstrual Set. [online] Available at: <https://supply.unicef.org/s5006271.html> [Accessed 14 March 2022].