Picture this: You’re on holiday at a beautiful beach. You put down your coconut-infused cocktail and stroll along the shore as the sun sets. You decide to take a dip and as you wade into the crystal-clear water, you see…a sanitary pad floating by.
This sounds like an unromantic vacation scenario but it isn’t so far-fetched. A 2010 beach clean-up activity in the United Kingdom gives us an idea of the environmental impact of feminine hygiene products: There was an average of 23 sanitary pads and nine tampon applicators per square kilometer of shoreline. A 2016 cleanup found 20 feminine products per 100 meters. Single-use feminine products are washing up on shores—and adding to landfills.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering the number of products used: One menstruator alone will go through as many as 15,000 products in her lifetime, some made up of up to 90% plastic. Altogether, that’s billions of plastic products and hundreds of thousands of tons of waste per year, from sanitary pads, tampon applicators, and all the adhesive backing and individual packaging of these products.
If you think about it, you only use each product for a few hours each day and they end up in landfills and beaches practically forever—it will take 500 years for a plastic product to biodegrade. Some say this is negligible in the bigger scheme of things (about 0.5% of women’s total waste throughout their lifetime comes from feminine hygiene products) but any effort to reduce plastic waste counts. So, ladies, it’s time to start thinking green when it comes to monthly periods and consider switching to plastic-free feminine products.
From Red to Green
Though bigger companies have yet to take action and change the way they make sanitary products, smaller businesses are listening to their eco-conscious—and the voices of women wishing for more sustainable means of managing their monthly period—and coming up with plastic-free menstrual products and single-use alternatives:
Reusable pads. These are plastic-free sanitary napkins that you can throw in the wash instead of in the trash. They’re made of natural materials like cotton and bamboo, and some even come in varying absorbencies for different flows. Bonus: Since they’re made of natural materials, they don’t irritate skin the way some disposable pads do.
Plastic-free pads. As it turns out, you don’t need plastic to make pads. Some smaller companies have come up with sanitary pads made of organic, fully biodegradable materials and are even wrapped in paper or other biodegradable or compostable materials.
Menstrual Cups. A menstrual cup is a pliable bell-shaped cup made of medical-grade material, like silicon, that is inserted into the vagina. It can hold up to three times as much as a tampon can absorb. It may look intimidating but once it’s inserted, you aren’t supposed to feel like it’s there. After use, you can just rinse it off, sanitize, and store it. One menstrual cup, when used properly, can last you for years, making it both cost-effective and eco-friendly.
While there is a bit of a learning curve, women seem to be willing to give it a shot. A consumer report states that the market is expected to grow to US$1.4 billion by 2023.
Period panties. Another reusable alternative, these undies-and-sanitary-pads free you of the hassle (and waste) of sticking a pad to your panties. They absorb liquids, are leak proof, and can be thrown in the wash. A caveat though: These were designed as a backup for tampons or menstrual cups, so it’s best to use these on light days.
Plastic-free tampons. Some companies have gone back to nature and found that natural materials are actually more absorbent than synthetic ones. Though not widely available, some tampon brands are now made of materials that are sustainably sourced, organic, and fully biodegradable (they have biodegradable cardboard applicators and recyclable wrappers, for example). They’re free of fragrances and chlorine, too—because you don’t want those products in your sensitive areas!
Reusable applicators. Plastic tampon applicators are one of the most egregious sources of single-use plastic waste—after all, you only use it for a few seconds and then it gets tossed in the bin. But many tampon users still aren’t comfortable with applicator-free tampons.
After a successful crowd-funding campaign, one company now offers a reusable plastic applicator alongside its non-toxic tampons. Each reusable applicator is self-cleaning (a quick rinse and wipe is all it needs) and can last for years. And, because the principle is the same behind commercial tampons, switching to a reusable applicator doesn’t require much of a behaviour switch, making it easy and convenient.
Doing Your Part
There are many other ways to lessen your contribution to plastic waste, from packing reusable straws and utensils in your purse and choosing a mug over a plastic cup when you’re having your coffee at a café. Switching to reusable and plastic-free feminine products is just one way to give more to the earth by using less.