Reducing our waste, and especially eliminating our consumption of single-use plastics, needs to be a priority if we want to fight climate change. For us women, this message resonates.
For most of our lives, we’ve endured the added monthly expense of menstruation. Sanitary products like tampons and pads can be expensive, costing at least one hour’s pay (of the federal minimum wage) per box. In the U.S., the average woman uses nearly 17,000 disposable tampons and pads in her lifetime. That’s a lot of money and waste. Fortunately, women are increasingly turning to “environmenstrual” products: sustainable menstrual products that save money in the long run and fight climate change, simultaneously.
“Making the switch to these options is becoming more appealing to girls and young women, with
increased awareness about the harm of conventional disposables to our bodies and the
environment,” said Natasha Piette-Basheer, Environmenstrual Campaign Coordinator at the Women’s Environmental Network [WEN].
It’s also appealing to “those who can’t afford menstrual products, those who are opposed to the taxation of menstrual products citing gender inequality, and [even] a person who has suffered toxic shock from a tampon,” said Dr. Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York.
Single-use menstrual products such as pads, tampons and their applicators generate a ton of waste, and end up washed ashore on our beaches. But sustainable alternatives are trying to solve that problem. They range in various forms and can be made from numerous recyclable, biodegradable and reusable materials.
Here, WEN ranks the most sustainable menstrual products in order of their environmental impact from least to greatest.
#1: Reusable menstrual cups can have a lifetime of up to 10 years and are especially easy and compact for traveling. On average, they can last up to 8-12 hours, but Dr. Dweck suggests that women should monitor use after 6-8 hours and clean their cups frequently. WEN also recommends sterilizing the cup in boiling water before the start of each period. Bonus points: most cups are made from silicone, which is more ocean-friendly than plastic.
#2: Reusable cloth pads work the same as disposable pads and can accommodate light to heavy periods. They can be rinsed in cold water and added to your normal wash load. Aside from being super eco-friendly, cloth pads are among the most cost-effective and readily available menstrual products. They can be composted, too. But it’s important to check to see if your cloth pad contains a layer of waterproof plastic first before trying to recycle it!
#3: Menstrual undies are great to have handy. Technically-designed to absorb leakage (generally 2-4 tampons worth), menstrual undies can be reused and worn again, cycle after cycle. Keep in mind this might not be a uniform solution, especially for women with heavier flows and longer cycles. Sanitation is also a concern. Dr. Dweck suggests checking the manufacturer’s individual instructions for washing and cleaning.
#4: Organic pads work just as effectively as conventional disposable pads, except they contain no plastic. According to the Women’s Environmental Network, most conventional menstrual pads are made of 90% plastic. Because of that, pads aren’t biodegradable, and can take up to 500-800 years to actually break down. Organic pads are safer for vaginal health, too. Non-organic pads may contain genetically-modified cotton, although little research has been done to determine the health impacts of this ingredient for women.
A Note from Public Goods: If you prefer pads but want a sustainable alternative to conventional products, try our 100% biodegradable bamboo maxi pads.
#5: Organic cotton tampons without plastic applicators eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste. It’s estimated that 70% of women use tampons, so imagine how many applicators get tossed in the garbage on a daily basis! Plastic applicators are made from Polyethylene and Polypropylene, which are the main plastics found in our oceans. Cotton tampons are also safer for vaginal health. Many women worry about bleaching of tampons, which could potentially cause Dioxin or BPA exposure.
“Occasionally women are particularly sensitive to any chemicals and switching to an unbleached, non-fragrant product is helpful,” said Dr. Dweck.
A study from the journal, Sustainability, showed that women still flush used tampons down the toilet –– and many don’t know how bad it is for the environment.
“Menstrual products appear to be going under the radar and are not recognised as single-use plastic items by most people, perhaps due to the taboo associated with these products and periods in general,” said Elizabeth Peberdy, lead author of the study.
Although tampons can usually biodegrade in about six months, they’re still not like toilet paper, and can interfere with plumbing systems and marine life.
#6: Sea sponges, while sustainable, are still not the safest option. Dr. Dweck doesn’t recommend them due to concerns about “impurities and disintegration” that could cause infections or even leave behind sponge particles in your body. WEN also doesn’t
recommend them “due to outstanding concerns about their potential environmental and health impact, including a link to TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome).”
A Note from Public Goods: We sell sea sponges, but we recommend them only for external body washing, not menstrual care.
“Alternative period care options such as healthy, eco-friendly menstrual products should be made available to all people who menstruate, regardless of which country they are or their economic status, as these products benefit everyone,” said Natasha Piette-Basheer of WEN.
“I certainly hope that popular brands will shift to organic or at least manufacture products without plastic, but there will need to be some sort of incentive,” Perberdy said.
In fact, women are already campaigning for all menstrual brands to go plastic-free — and fast. Together, we can help save the planet, starting with our periods.
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