WARNING! This post may contain blood.

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). 

Source retrieved from Natracare (2022)

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). 

Source retrieved from Unicef (2018)

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). 

Source retrieved from Galan (2019)

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. 

Personal Reflection

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.

Bibliography

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].

The Cost of Your Jeans

For more than a hundred years, people around the world have loved denim jeans. In fact, denim is still to this day one of the most iconic fabrics across the world. Denim is accountable for clothing items such as jeans, skirts, shirts and jackets etc. However, what is the relationship between the fabric and the environment? Which contributions can we as consumers make?

By Fanny Bällgren

30 March 2022

What is the problem?

Disposable plastic and gas-emission cars are widely known to consumers as a big no. However, what people are less aware of is that clothing has also a massive impact on the planet as well as on our health. Surprisingly, denim is at the top of the list of the worst suspects.

“The Denim Capital of the World”

In order to understand how, let’s start focusing on the fabric. Denim is mainly made out of cotton, and cotton is an extremely thirsty harvest and requires gallons of water depending on where it comes from (Lindwall, 2019). Furthermore, in order to produce 1 kg of cotton, approximately 7,660 gallons of water is required. To put it in a context as in comparison with producing 1 kg tomatoes, which only requires 76 gallons (Lindwall, 2019). The environmental impacts from the denim production industry becomes more evident in Xintang, China, which is called “the denim capital of the world” (Lindwall, 2019). In this town in Southern China, 300 million pairs of jeans are produced every year (Webber, 2018). This means that one of every three pairs of jeans sold worldwide are produced in Xintang. It all started in 2013 when Xintang’s rivers became darker blue and smelled foul as a result of manufacturers dumping the chemical loaded wastewater of the production of jeans directly into the local water (Lindwall, 2019). Moreover, an estimation was made that  70% of Asia’s water is contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons of the production wastewater within the manufacturing of the denim (Webber, 2018). Many scientists and environmental experts have pointed out a crisis within the public health that was a result of the manufacturing process (Webber, 2018). Unhealthy quantity of toxic metals such as mercury, lead and copper has been detected in rivers in which the population depends on drinking from and bathing in (Lindwall, 2019). 

Source: Tinachou28, n d.
https://tinachou28.github.io/cost-of-jeans.github.io/

Furthermore, the production of giving the denim its indigo color requires a specific energy- and water intensive process that is an extremely destructive dyeing and finishing process (Lindwall, 2019). Later, the denims are treated and washed with lots of chemicals continuously. Different shades of jeans require further treatments which means more chemicals. To summarize the manufacturing process of producing one pair of jeans, a vast quantity of water and energy are needed which generates compelling pollution. Additionally, the chemicals in the Asian river can change places far afield from its origin. They can be transferred to the ocean, atmosphere and even food chains in which they accumulate in which the whole world is affected (Webber, 2018).

Source: Tinachou28, n d.
https://tinachou28.github.io/cost-of-jeans.github.io/

What can you do:

There is no doubt that a makeover has to be done in the denim manufacturing industry in order to change the negative impact of the environment. But what can we as consumers do? One essential thing we individuals can do is to require that brands will improve the manufacturing process towards a more sustainable manner. Another important aspect is to do research about the effort that brands are making in order to reduce their ecological footprint before we buy their jeans. However, the most important contribution we as consumers can make that has a direct effect, is to change our consumption habits. We need to avoid overconsumption of denim. That is, we need to wear our jeans until they are unusable and avoid buying cheap made jeans as they generally last for a maximum of two seasons. Moreover, if our jeans get broken we should mend them (if possible), instead of throwing them away. Purchasing at thrift stores is another way of contributing to a more sustainable world. However, when you purchase a new pair of jeans or a denim item, choose tenable items that will last forever rather than one season. Simply extending the life of jeans is a huge contribution we consumers can do in order to contribute to a more sustainable future. If actions are taken, we can all rock our iconic jeans with pride. 

Sources:

Lindwall, C, 2019. “Are My Denim Jeans Bad for the Environment?” NRDC. Available at: www.nrdc.org/stories/are-my-denim-jeans-bad-environment. [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].

Tinachou28, n d.“The Cost of Your Jeans.” Tinachou28.Github.io. Available at: tinachou28.github.io/cost-of-jeans.github.io/. [Accessed 16 Mar. 2022.] 

‌Webber, K., 2018. “The Environmental and Human Cost of Making a Pair of Jeans.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, Available at: www.ecowatch.com/environmental-cost-jeans-2544519658.html. [Accessed 8 Mar. 2018].