Traditional menstrual products such as pads (sanitary napkins) and tampons, make up a multi-billion dollar industry and are unsustainable. These products are commonly used by anyone who menstruates starting on average at the age of 12, until menopause. This is estimated to be about 11,000 tampons used in a person’s lifetime, equaling to about 400 pounds of packaging thrown away.
Tampons, pads and their packaging contain single use plastics, and as they absorb bodily fluid which is considered hazardous waste they are not recyclable. Plastics make up to 90% of pads, which is equivalent to four plastic bags. Due to the amount of plastic found in them, they are not biodegradable and one pad can take up to 600 years to decompose. Considering the amount of people that menstruate over their lifetime, this is a ridiculous amount of plastic that will outlive the people currently living. Menstrual products have also been found to be the fifth most common plastic product found in the ocean. In this way they are also leaching microplastics into the ocean as they slowly degrade. The process of manufacturing products is also very chemically intensive and usually relies on unsustainable cotton production.
A study performed by Women’s Voices of the Earth, found that there were harmful chemicals in a name brand pad company. These chemicals included acetone, styrene, chloroform and many more. Not only do these chemicals irritate the sensitive area, but some have been confirmed as carcinogenic, neurotoxin and chemicals that can interfere with reproduction. A study was also performed on a tampon company promoting their “organic tampons”, but these were also found to contain harmful chemicals that could affect the skin and reproduction. Some menstrual products also contain fragrance, which could be harmful and irritating for the skin. Many women might be drawn to use these fragrant products due to period taboo that is still very common.
Period Taboo & Period Poverty
Period taboo is still very prevalent in today’s society. Big brand commercials promote discreet packaging, and the idea of hiding your period and disposing of used products quietly. There is a lack of open conversations and comfortability with periods, and everything that revolves around it, such as cramps, changes in hormones and ovarian cysts. Instead they are made into jokes or not taken seriously even in a professional setting such as a doctor’s office.
People who menstruate also experience “tampon tax”. Some countries such as those in the EU (except for Ireland) charge a minimum of 5% extra tax on menstrual products. This is because the government does not recognize them as essential items, therefore taxing them as non-essential items. This is ridiculous in comparison to other products that are considered essential and tax exempt such as golf club memberships and erectile dysfunction pills. Thankfully, some countries such as Canada, India, Malaysia, Kenya, Australia, and quite a few more, do not apply this extra tax.
Along with this comes the issue of “period poverty”. Ask yourself, what do people who menstruate do when they cannot afford to pay for menstrual products? It is estimated that globally 500 million people do not have access to safe and adequate menstrual hygiene. Many have to resort to using unsafe or unhygienic materials for their periods. Globally Scotland is the only country to make period products free and available to anyone who may need them. This is a step they took to end “period poverty” in their country, and was proudly passed with unanimous votes.
An important issue worth addressing is period management in extreme and male-dominated environments. For example, menstruating while performing fieldwork in Antarctica. In fields like this where only cis men were welcome due to the ease of toileting, people who menstruate have special difficulties and it is still considered very taboo to even talk about. Many cis men also don’t understand menstruation and its neccessities. An old, yet still relevant example of this occurred during a NASA mission in 1983 which included a female astronaut Sally Ride. In preparing for this mission, male NASA engineers famously asked Ride if 100 tampons would be enough for a one-week mission. This clearly shows how ignorant many men are on menstruation and its needs.
There are basically 4 sustainable options which we will explore, these are sustainable/organic pads and tampons, menstrual cups, cloth pads, and period panties (free bleeding).
Organic Pads & Tampons
August Co. is a rare example of a company producing organic cotton period products while being sustainable in other ways, with 100% traceability and transparency in their process. Their cotton is completely organic and ethical from Turkey, their manufacturing plants have third party certifications, and their packaging is made from recycled materials. They also pride themselves in their virtual period community where they work to destigmatize periods and have open discussions.
bfree cup is a Canadian menstrual cup brand that takes pride in their proven antibacterial silicone that doesn’t need to be boiled between every period like other standard menstrual cups. Menstrual cups themselves are also the most cost effective as they have a usability of 10 years and can be worn for many hours at a time comfortably. And with their designs they are virtually leak proof. I have personally tried menstrual cups and the bfree cup and I found it just as they advertised, comfortable and leak proof. There are also different available sizes to fit you better and completely prevent leakage.
Cloth pads are sustainable as they are reusable and just need to be washed in between uses. This might be better for people who have sensitive skin (as they are non irritating), and are slowly transitioning to other forms of menstrual products. An example of a local Canadian company that produces these are Tree Hugger Cloth Pads, created in Winnipeg, Canada.
Period panties promote free bleeding, as they are just underwear that has been made to be especially absorbent. Typically made with three layers for absorbency, leakage prevention and comfort. Popular period panty brands include Thinx and Knix.
August Co. (2022). Traceability. https://www.itsaugust.co/traceability/.
Collie, M. (2020, February 23). Pads and tampons can harm the environment. What’s the alternative?. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/6535090/pads-tampons-climate-change/.
Nash, M. (2022, July 21). People stationed in Antarctica menstruate too – and it’s a struggle. Here’s how we can support them. Canadian Inquirer. https://canadianinquirer.net/2022/07/31/people-stationed-in-antarctica-menstruate-too-and-its-a-struggle-heres-how-we-can-support-them/.
Northwell Health. (2022). Gaslighting in women’s health: No, it’s not just in your head. https://www.northwell.edu/katz-institute-for-womens-health/articles/gaslighting-in-womens-health.
Rodriguez, L. (2021, June 28). The Tampon Tax: Everything You Need to Know. Global Citizen. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/tampon-tax-explained-definition-facts-statistics/.
Sparks, T. (2020, November 10). What’s the Environmental Impact of Your Period?. Barcelona Metropolitan. https://www.barcelona-metropolitan.com/features/the-environmental-impact-of-your-period/.
Spinks, R. (2015, April 27). Disposable tampons aren’t sustainable, but do women want to talk about it?. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/apr/27/disposable-tampons-arent-sustainable-but-do-women-want-to-talk-about-it.
Tumin, R. (2022, Aug 15). Scotland Makes Period Products Free. NyTimes. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/15/world/europe/scotland-free-period-products.html.
One thought on “Traditional Menstrual Products are Unsustainable”
This article was so well put! We need to start having more conversations about menstruation! The lack of communication has really added to the don’t-talk-about-it mentality that even many of my menstruating friends find the concept of free-bleeding an absurd or gross idea. I also had no idea that the estimates of how many products someone uses in their life were so high! Thank you for shedding some light on this topic