Your Period - Sustainably
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
There is quite a stigma around the topic of sustainable feminine hygiene products, as periods themselves are a topic that is rather taboo in our society. However, it is an important conversation to have because there are immense benefits to our environment, our health, and our wallets by considering these options. The average woman will throw away 250 to 300 pounds of disposable menstrual care products in her lifetime, which will then enter our landfills and last on Earth for approximately 500-800 years. This is not a sustainable habit for our environment, or our health. Tampons and pads contain a host of chemicals, plastics and even pesticides that manufacturers are not required to disclose. Luckily, there are many alternatives to avoid these wasteful products and protect our health. Today I will be discussing an overview of these products, and the ways in which they can improve the quality of our health and environment.
I want to start this discussion with a personal testimony, as I am very passionate about reusable period products. Before I started using them, I used traditional disposable methods like tampons and pads. I never considered using a menstrual cup or other option, because I thought they were rather intimidating, less sanitary, inconvenient, and unreliable. Once I moved to college, I realized how expensive tampons and pads truly are, and how much of my monthly budget they consumed. I became interested in switching to a reusable period product after a friend of mine started using a menstrual cup. She described how it was so much more convenient and cost effective for her. I was envious of her for making this switch, but still too scared to try it for myself. After some research and consulting with other women, I decided to start using a DivaCup.
It took some trial-and-error to get used to it, but the overall process was not too tricky and I was confident using it after just a few months. I have felt empowered in the fact that I have overcome a stigma that I used to comply with, and liberated in the fact that I am not burdened by the inconveniences associated with disposable period products. I have offered a list of the reasons I prefer to use a menstrual cup below, but there are many different products that are sustainable and adapted for an individual's lifestyle.
Because a menstrual cup forms a seal in the vagina, it will not leak unless it is full or inserted wrong. This is something I really appreciate, as tampons do not have the same guarantee.
The cup can also hold three times as much blood as a tampon, so it can be worn for up to 12 hours without leaks while a tampon should be changed every 3-4 hours.
A cup lasts on average between six months and ten years with proper care, so it greatly reduces the amount of money a woman spends on her period. I have saved about $10 on average each month since switching to a menstrual cup.
Along with this, cups greatly cut down on the amount of waste a woman will produce. I do not have to take out my trash as often, and I am sending less waste to the landfill.
Cups greatly reduce your risk of toxic shock syndrome, or TSS, which is a bacterial infection that is often caused by tampon use. Because of this, I have had more peace of mind not having to worry as much about my risk of developing TSS.
What’s Wrong with our Current Options?
Chemicals and Menstrual Products
Period products are defined as medical products, and so manufacturers are not legally required to document all of the components within them. P&G and Kimberly-Clark released information on their feminine hygiene products in 2015 after urged to do so by a petition, but did not disclose the amount of or details about each component used. This is concerning, because with toxins, the risk an individual is at increases as the amount of exposure increases. Several pesticides with probable human carcinogens and endocrine disruptors have been detected in tampons, and direct exposure through sensitive vaginal tissues has not yet been studied. Womens health is too valuable to be gambled with, but the feminine hygiene industry has continually taken that risk.
Like most things in our society today, single-use period products contain plastic. 90% of a pad is plastic, and 6% of a tampon is. However, a tampon is significantly smaller than a pad and enters the human body. In order to have a clean white appearance, tampons and pads contain materials that are bleached with an elemental chlorine-free bleaching process that reduces the production of dioxin, compared to traditional chlorine gas bleaching methods. Dioxin is still used, though, and it is classified as a carcinogen, or a substance capable of causing cancer. Dioxin is also linked with type 2 diabetes, endocrine disruption, heart and skin disease. Not only women are at risk when this substance is created, because it is emitted into the atmosphere during the process of bleaching which affects the population at large.
Unsustainability and Waste
Feminine hygiene products as we know them are incredibly unsustainable from start to finish. The manufacturing process to produce tampons and pads is resource and chemical intensive, which contributes to climate change and the overall degradation of our environment. Understanding the full scope of how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products is challenging, because they are labeled as medical waste and therefore not required to be tracked. Upon estimation, the average woman will throw away 250 to 300 pounds of disposable menstrual care products in her lifetime. These products will either enter our landfills or our oceans if they are inappropriately disposed of, and are estimated to last on Earth for 500-800 years.
Plastic is a non de-composable material, and is a major component in the feminine hygiene industry. A tampon comes packaged in a plastic applicator with a plastic string and plastic wrapper, and pads have even more plastic from the product itself to the wrapper and package it is enclosed in. There is often a thin wall of plastic holding the cotton tampon together, meaning that the majority of waste entering landfills from menstrual products is plastic and not cotton. This is not a sustainable habit, but luckily there are many alternatives to avoid these wasteful products.
The feminine hygiene industry is incredibly profitable, baiting off of a steady demand for their products and the general lack of information on alternative options. In 2018, there were 5.8 billion tampons purchased in the United States alone. Globally, the feminine hygiene market is valued at 19.24 billion US dollars. This industry is profiting off of women and taking cuts out of our income that we should not have to incur. The average woman spends between $144 and $300 per year on feminine hygiene products, which can accumulate up to $17,000. This figure does not include the costs of period related expenses such as heat packs, pain killers, and other products that an individual may find necessary. Sustainable period products offer a great cost savings to women, as they do not need to be purchased on a monthly basis and can be reused many times. However, this cost savings to women would mean a profit loss to industries and so marketing and information is not pushed for these products.
So Why are these Products so Popular?
The Stigma around Periods
Aside from the fact that industries would lose profits from consumers purchasing reusable instead of single-use feminine hygiene products, there is a large stigma around periods and such products. This trend originated in ancient Greece where writers viewed periods as dirty, sleazy, and even poisonous bad blood, and was further solidified by the mid-1800s in the US. This is a narrative created by men, and has fueled the theme of men shaming women for their bodies. This is still a recurrent trend in our society today, and is just another attempt to invalidate women. Because of this culture, women are encouraged to feel embarrassed about their menstrual health, and to rely on the faulty, expensive, and unsustainable products that are on the market today.
The way in which feminine hygiene products are marketed furthers this stigma. The industry has convinced women that periods should be both out of sight and out of mind through advertising silent wrappers and products that are easier to hide in an effort to make periods more discrete. Women have less opportunities to learn about other feminie hygiene product options due to the lack of positive period talk, and have to comply with the current leading options that are not in the best interest of our environment or public health. We know the science behind periods now, and so there is no need to continue proliferating the stigma around periods.
We can change the narrative on women's bodies that men have advanced for years, and reusable period products are just another facet of this issue. Women are intelligent and powerful and strong, and should not be made to feel small and insecure for taking care of our bodies. Periods are not gross, embarrassing, or shameful, and neither is considering a reusable period product. They will require more interaction with menstrual fluid, but this is not inherently gross and we should not have to feel disgusted to care for our own bodies.
What are the Alternatives?
As stated above, there is a large potential for damage to our bodies and environment in using disposable period products. Luckily, there are many different reusable products that are tailored to suit each woman's individual lifestyle. Periods may be an inconvenience, and reusable period products aim to lessen the burden that women feel each cycle. One argument against reusable options is that because women are already shamed for their periods, they should not also be shamed for the impact of their period on the planet too. This is a strong argument, and I used to share this perspective. However, I found a great convenience in switching to a menstrual cup. I also feel empowered and no longer tied to a stigma that I had adopted. If we are empowered and feel confident, we cannot be so easily belittled and made to feel ashamed. The main benefits to using such products are the reduction of waste entering landfills, protection of women's health, and cost savings, but I will detail some of the leading options in the sustainable feminine hygiene industry below.
A menstrual cup functions in the same way as a tampon, as it sits inside of the vagina and collects blood. It differs from a tampon in the way that it collects blood, rather than absorbing it which greatly reduces a woman's risk of toxic shock syndrome. The chemicals in menstrual cups are very straight forward, as the product is only composed of medical grade silicone. Cups are also cleaned more thoroughly than tampons, as they are boiled between cycles. A cup holds three times more blood than a tampon, and can be worn from 8-12 hours. Another benefit to the cup is that it offers less chance of spotting and leaking, as it forms a seal in the vagina. It also does not dry out the vagina as a tampon does, which helps preserve healthy bacteria that protects you from infections. There are different sizes of cups available to choose from based on your age and whether or not you have birthed a child. The average cost of a menstrual cup is around $20 to $40, and lasts from six months to 10 years with proper care. Some of the disadvantages to using a menstrual cup is that they are more difficult to learn how to use than a tampon, and may cause an allergic reaction if you are allergic to rubber or latex. However, once a woman masters the cup, she can receive all of the many benefits it has to offer. Below I have listed some of the options currently on the market:
Lunette Menstrual Cup
Reusable Cloth Pad
A reusable cloth pad is a pretty straight-forward product, as it functions in the same way that a disposable pad does. However, it does not include the same chemicals and toxins that can be found in a pad, and can be reused so it greatly reduces the amount of waste created. They can be purchased from $10-$40 depending on the maker, and can be reused for up to 5 years with proper care. They can be cleaned in a washing machine with normal detergent, baking soda, or vinegar. To avoid stains, they can be rinsed or soaked in cold water after they are removed. They are also easy to make at home using a simple pattern and some absorbent cloth fabric. This is a great option for women that prefer to use pads, and are an easy transition from using disposable pads. Below I have offered a list of some popular brands for reusable cloth pads that are already on the market:
A third option in the reusable feminine hygiene product industry is period panties. These are a bit newer, but have started coming onto shelves at stores like Target and Walmart recently. Many women prefer it as a less-invasive method compared to a menstrual cup, but less bulky than a cloth pad. Period underwear is simply underwear that has an extra layer of fabric to absorb menstrual blood. They are made from a supportive and secure blend of bamboo and merino wool, and are thin even with the extra fabric layer in them. Conveniently, they are machine washable and can be worn twice as long as the average tampon as they can absorb the equivalent amount of liquid to 2-5 tampons. With proper care, they can last from 6 months to 2 years.
The original target audience was teenagers with relatively light flows, but the product has evolved to accommodate heavier flows and more active lifestyles. Period panties can be worn in place of a cup or pad, or in addition to for extra absorbency. The average pair holds three teaspoons of blood, and dries much faster than normal underwear. While it is eco-friendly, it is also very comfortable for many women which makes it a good option. This product is free of chemicals and toxins that are often in pads and tampons, and so it is healthier for the consumer as well. The average pair costs between $14-$50. There are many different brands on the market now, and I have listed them below:
Sustainable feminine hygiene products may have a higher upfront cost than single-use options, but they are investments and with proper care, they will last and save the consumer up to hundreds of dollars each year. They will also prevent an estimated 400 million pounds of sanitary pads, tampons, liners and applicators from entering landfills each year. They are also beneficial to women's health as they prevent our exposure to toxic chemicals. If the options discussed in this post do not feel suitable for your lifestyle or you are not ready to completely transition yet, there are steps you can take in the meantime to have a healthier and more sustainable period. Instead of traditional tampons and pads, you can use organic versions that are produced without chemicals that are harmful to our bodies and the environment. You could also use pads that are not individually wrapped to save plastic. Feminine care products are not sterile, so they do not require extra packaging. Another option is to use applicator-free tampons to reduce your plastic consumption, or try a reusable tampon applicator. These must be cleaned between each use, but can significantly cut down on waste generated from your period. Womens health is public health, and the conversation about menstrual hygiene is worth having as it affects our planet too. I have felt empowered in adopting sustainable menstrual habits, and am inspired in sharing my passion with others. I hope you have found an area to further explore or a product to adopt from this post, and can live a life that is a little bit more healthy and sustainable in the future!
About the Author
Hailey Quinn is a university student studying Environmental Policy and served with Green Iowa's Land & Water Steward branch from May through August of 2021.
Amy Hait, Susan E. Powers, “The value of reusable feminine hygiene products evaluated by comparative environmental life cycle assessment,”Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 150, 2019, 104422, ISSN 0921-3449, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.104422. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344919303179)
Borunda, A. (2019, September 6). How tampons and pads became unsustainable and filled with plastic. Environment. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic.
Jafar, Y. (2020, September 16). Sustainable periods: Why plastic and chemicals make most products damaging to the environment. The Vegan Review. https://theveganreview.com/sustainable-periods-why-plastic-and-chemicals-make-most-products-damaging-to-the-environment/.
Machinnon, N. (2021, July 20). Reusable menstrual products for A Waste-Free Period. This Organic Girl. https://thisorganicgirl.com/reusable-menstrual-products/.
Morris, S. Y. (2019, March 8). What is period underwear & how does it work? healthline. https://shopproof.com/blogs/articles/what-is-period-underwear.
Rastogi, N. S. (2010, March 16). What's the environmental impact of my period? Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/technology/2010/03/what-s-the-environmental-impact-of-my-period.html.
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.
What is period underwear & how does it work? Proof. (n.d.). https://shopproof.com/blogs/articles/what-is-period-underwear.