Periods & the Environment: How to Have a Sustainable Period

By Annabel Purdy- UEA Bloody Good Society collaboration

When you think of single use plastics, what comes to mind? Plastic straws, cups, toothbrushes and water bottles, most likely. The discourse surrounding environmentalism seems to routinely ignore menstrual waste as an issue, despite it being a largely contributive factor in the polluting of our planet. 

It’s time we address it.

The History of Plastic in Menstrual Products

The original method for collecting menstrual blood was to use miscellaneous objects such as cloths and rags, which had to be washed and dried publicly. To remedy this, Earle Haas invented the first tampon in 1933. However, Haas, alongside many doctors and members of the public at the time, became “squeamish” at the thought of menstruators having to touch their genitals when inserting a tampon, and potentially experiencing sexual pleasure as a result. 

Plagued with this distressing image, the plastic applicator was created in 1973, to ensure that menstruators weren’t - God forbid! - touching themselves or experiencing any sexual pleasure from tampon insertions. Because let’s be honest, there’s nothing sexier than shoving cotton inside your bleeding vagina. 

Plastic was also implemented into the design of menstrual products themselves to enhance their efficiency: tampons started to contain plastic to hold the cotton together, and pads began to consist of a layer of leak-proof polypropylene or polyethylene, a plastic adhesive to stick to underwear, plastic wings to wrap around the underwear, and thin polyester fibres in the material to increase absorbability and moisture-wicking functions. 

Arguably, the rise in hygienic, disposable menstrual products was a win for menstruators all around; no longer did they (those with the privilege to afford safer products that is) have to use unsafe items or wash and air-dry them in public, now they could conveniently pick up a packet of tampons or pads and dispose of them discreetly. However, this was at a strong detriment to the environment. 

Additionally, companies selling menstrual products quickly cottoned (pardon the pun) onto the fact that disposability equated to increased spending on a regular basis. Consequently, the idea that discretion and disposability were essential during one’s ‘time of the month’ was heavily promoted, thereby allowing companies to profit off of menstruators’ monthly bleeds. 

The shame and stigma surrounding menstruation furthered the incorporation of plastic into menstrual products, with companies coming up with new innovative ways of creating quieter packaging to keep one’s menstrual flow “a secret”, meaning additional plastic components (e.g. plastic wrappers, plastic bags to dispose of them in) were introduced in order to maintain the forbidden secret.

Environmental Impacts:

Menstrual products make up a notable proportion of environmental waste; 7.3% of items flushed down the toilet in the UK are menstrual products, not to mention the products disposed of in bins or other areas. The Women’s Environmental Network found that, on average, a person who menstruates will use more than 11,000 disposable menstrual products over their reproductive life course. One year’s worth of single use sanitary products is equivalent to 5.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide produced, due to the fact that many cotton tampons contain small amounts of pesticides and dioxin, a by-product of the synthetic carbon fibre, rayon (Friends of the Earth, 2018). 

Some sanitary towels have up to 90% plastic content and most applicator tampons contain at least 6% plastic, which lasts between 500-800 years in the environment. As a result, the UK alone generates 200,000 tonnes of menstrual waste yearly, ending up in landfills, sewers, streams, gutters, the sea and so on. The Marine Conservation Society further found that for every 100 metres of beach cleaned, there are an average of 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste found, amounting to four panty-liners, backing strips and at least one tampon and applicator.

So, what are the solutions?

Firstly, there’s the menstrual cup — my one true love! Menstrual cups are small, flexible cups made of silicone or latex rubber that catch and collect your blood, instead of absorbing it. This also means there is a much lower chance of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), so better for your vagina and the environment! 

To insert, you tightly fold the cup and insert it like a tampon. Depending on the brand, type and size, it can hold anywhere from 30 to 60 millilitres of blood at a time and can be in for up to 12 hours. Price depends on the brand you get, ranging from £8 to £25 and, with proper care, they can last up to 10 years. 

Next, we have a less daunting substitute: organic pads and tampons, which work just like non-organic ones, with the same risks of TSS. The difference is they are treated with non-GMO seeds instead of pesticide and whitened with peroxide instead of chlorine. Organic pads and tampons are made from 100% Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) Certified Organic Cotton, which uses 71% less water and 62% less energy to produce. They are also biodegradable and cost around £2-£3 for a pack of 20. 

Another eco-friendly substitute is reusable pads and tampons, which are just like disposable ones, but you wash them after every use. Reusable tampons are made of 100% organically cultivated cotton, but still have the same risks as disposable tampons. Price varies a lot, depending on where you get them from but they last up to approximately 4 years.

Another popular sustainable option is non-applicator tampons, including: biodegradable tampons with cardboard applicators, non-applicator tampons or tampons with a reusable applicator. For reusable tampons applicators, you just put the non-applicator tampon into the applicator and use it as usual, then wash with water. 

DAME reusable applicators are made from medical grade materials that contain sanipolymers to actively fight off bacteria and germs. They have saved up to 12,000 disposable plastic applicators and have a 70% smaller emissions footprint. Reusable applicators cost £20 and last for at least 10 years. 

Another option I would highly endorse is period pants. They are worn like normal underwear and you can wear them for 24 hours, depending on how light or heavy your flow is. However, when blood is exposed to air for any length of time, it can start to grow bacteria, so be mindful of this. They are made of bamboo viscose, which requires no pesticides or fertilisers and grows without causing any damage to soil. The second layer is made out of sports merino, a renewable, moisture-wicking and naturally anti-microbial super-fibre, and the third layer is the waterproof microfibre, which is strong and durable. They last up to 2 years and cost around £20, depending on the brand and style. 

Unfortunately, due to the archaic taboo that still remains in this country, the issue of menstrual waste is rarely raised, but it is unequivocally vital that we address the damage it is causing to our environment. Eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives are all around better for your body, the environment, and your bank account, so with the myriad of alternative methods, what’s stopping you from switching?

All images credited to their sites of origin:


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