Half of the human population menstruate. It’s a necessary biological function where life comes from. Yet there is so much stigma around it. Drank discussions about what it does to women’s bodies and wellbeing are not encouraged by a society that we forget about other problems that can arise correlated to menstruation such as period poverty. When talking about the experience itself, it can be painful, emotional, disturbing, and costly. And one more thing that we often forget about — unsustainable. We’re not talking about womxn only here. We’re talking about our environment, our earth.
Single-use plastics have recently become a target for action from plastic straws to bags. But disposable menstrual products are going under the radar not getting the recognition as a source of single-use plastic. These cultural taboos and stigmas have led to the multi-billion dollar industry of disposable female hygiene products to thrive in this day and age.
Menstrual pads are made up of up to 90 per cent plastic and nearly all tampons contain some plastic, according to the U.K. organization Friends of the Earth.
With menstruation comes period products. Pads and tampons have been essential for a womxn’s hygiene during menstruation. Typically a woman uses 10–15 pads in one cycle. Now let’s multiply it by twelve (for the year). Multiply that by forty (approximate menstruating years before menopause). Now multiply that with 800 million( women and youth worldwide menstruating. That boils down to 5.8 Trillion pads. Mountains and mountains of waste. Each pad is made out of so much plastic that it takes approximately 500 years to decompose. That technically means that every pad produced on earth since the invention of it in 1888 is still sitting in the landfills. Maybe let’s try flushing it down the toilet so it doesn’t end up in the landfills right? Yet these pads are made out of polyacrylate gels. They expand as they absorb liquid and continue to expand, resulting in blocked-out drains in sewer systems and waterways.
Um, let’s burn it so it’ll just be gone forever? Ok, let’s do that. But keep in mind that these pads are made out of plastic. When you burn plastic, dioxins are released into the air. But, what about dioxins? They’ll be one with the air and it won’t impact anything right? No. Dioxins are the leading cause of cancer.
There is no viable disposing of the disposable.
How did it become like this?
Over a womxn’s lifetime, we’re predicted to throw away about 400 pounds of packaging from these products. But before we get into that let’s go back to ancient Greece. Menstrual blood was considered poisonous and unhealthy, a symbol of female excess and something that must be expelled. That general attitude persisted for centuries. And by the mid-1800s in the U.S., the stigma has concluded that Period blood was perceived as “bad blood,” both dirty and shameful, says Chris Bobel, a menstruation expert at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. During the Pre-20th century, womxn used fabric, bark, or anything absorbent that’s available. These items are reusable. But this meant that when these items are washed and dried, they would be displayed publicly and this causes ‘discomfort’ in society because of the implications of the stigmatized menstruation.
In 1921, Kotex released pads inspired by the material used for medical bandages during WW1, propelling the beginning of a new era: disposable menstrual products. The idea behind these products was more efficient, modern, and ‘clean’. With ‘clean’ rooted in the patriarchal idea that menstruation being unhygienic and should be hidden. Ads emphasized the hygiene of pads and tampons, adding deodorants and perfumes into menstrual products, and the hygiene of tampon applicators to cover the ‘shame’ womxn have. With disposables, menstruators wouldn’t have to hold on to their hygiene products which brought them ‘shame’. It would just be thrown away.
The so-called ‘innovation’ here includes a copious amount of plastic.
Major companies are not required to disclose tampon ingredients because the FDA classes feminine hygiene products as medical devices and not personal care products. This opens potential risks of womxn getting exposed to dioxins, pesticides, bleach, chemical fragrances, etc.
Pads today are made from ‘thin, flexible and leak-proof’ bases made from polypropylene or polyethylene. The absorbent core is made from chlorine bleached wood pulp or polyacrylate gels which sucks up the liquid quickly and holds it in a suspension under pressure.The squishy part of the pad is made from polyester fibers. Most of these pads are over 90% plastic and each pad is an equivalent to four plastic bags.
Tampons are made out of absorbent fibers such as cotton, rayon, or polyester and are usually bleached to achieve a ‘cleaner’ image and are made for one-time use. They also incorporate plastic in the absorbent part where it holds a thin layer to hold the tightly-packed cotton part together. A tampon also has a string for withdrawal, and it's made of polyester or polypropylene. Tampons also usually come with a one-time-use disposable hard plastic applicator.
Shin & Ahn (2007) and Yang et al. (2011) state that during the breakdown of cotton/rayon from tampon products inside the vagina, there is a release of dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzo-furans which results in the absorption of dioxins to the body.
Other than that, tampons have an effect on land use from the growing of cotton. It is estimated that 2.4% of the world’s arable land is used for cotton growing, and requires a lot of water and pesticides to grow (Bevilacqua et al., 2014).
What happens when these products are disposed of?
After products are used, they are thrown in the trash and end up in landfills. Just keep in mind that it takes 500–800 years for them to fully decompose. And for improper disposal like when they’re flushed down the toilet, they clog waterways and usually end up in other water ecosystems, damaging the environment. Let’s check some statistics here.
- According to waste consultant Franklin Associates in 1988, 6.5 billion tampons and 13.5 billion sanitary pads, plus their packaging, ended up in landfills or sewer systems.
- An EU report has found period products are the fifth most common type of waste found on beaches.
- But on UK beaches there are nine plastic tampon applicators found per kilometer, according to the Women’s Environmental Network.
- Center for Marine Conservation claims that over 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along with U.S. coastal areas between 1998 and 1999
- Global warming potential: Global warming potential is measured by the radiative forcing effects of greenhouse gases emitted to the environment (Tester et al., 2012). On a single unit basis, a tampon with no applicator produces 6.49 kg CO2eq of global warming potential while Tampax, a tampon with a plastic applicator at has a global warming potential of 21.90 kgCO2eq
- Acidification: Acidifying compounds released into the atmosphere and are deposited on ecosystems, affecting the pH of the environment like soils and water. Once they’re in the ecosystem, it can have negative effects. For a single unit of menstrual product, the tampon with no plastic applicator produces 59.35 g SO2 eq of acidification, and Tampax, a tampon with a plastic applicator produces 111.01 g SO2 eq of acidification.
- Carbon footprint: disposables get thrown on the ground, washed into rivers, and disrupt the ecosystem — getting eaten by fish, etc.
But there is a solution.
Non-disposable menstrual products that can be used more than once are emerging in the market more than ever.
Rather than throwing something away every few hours during your period, you can now just reinsert and rinse. So much waste being avoided right? These cups are bell-shaped and made of silicone, latex, or rubber. Like a tampon, it’s inserted into the vagina when people have their period. But instead of absorbing menstrual flow with cotton, the cup collects the flow in its receptacle, which stays in place around the cervix through the power of suction. They last for about 6–12 hours. The crazy thing is one cup can last up to 10 years! Even though these cups are a little more pricey ($20-$40) at first glance, they can save us so much more money when we see it in the long run. And other than that, because menstrual cups collect rather than absorb blood, you’re not at risk of getting toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare bacterial infection associated with tampon use.
Recent technological advancements have also led us to a SMART menstrual cup. The LoonCup provides menstrual cycle analysis, helps users track their menstrual fluid volume and color, and provides an alert when you need to change your cup.
The Period Underwear.
Period underwears are a good option for people who are used to using pads. This underwear absorbs the blood and is reused after washing. One pair of underwear has so much potential to replace the plethora of disposable products. Thinx’s underwear holds up to 5 tampons’ worth — yet they look and feel like regular underwear.
Why only now?
Reusable menstrual cups were actually developed in the 1930s, not long after disposable pads were released. Although reusable menstrual cups were developed shortly after disposable pads and around the same time as tampons in the 1930s, they did not become popular at the time due to the lack of marketing compared to disposable menstrual products. Other than that, companies have bigger desires for disposables than reusables because they have a higher commodity potential. With disposables, consumers will have to keep on repurchasing products periodically whereas more sustainable products like menstrual cups can last up to 10 years. However, there has been a surge of interest in reusable products due to the spread of information through social media and the 4th generation feminism wave, where it’s less stigmatized to talk about women’s hygiene & the rise of femtech.
So, what can I do?
First of all, you’ve done the first step — Educating ourselves on this issue.
What YOU can do next is start spreading the message whether it’s to your mom, your friends, your teacher or even talking about it in Clubhouse! Anyone (literally).
Then after that, you can start convincing yourself to switch to more sustainable products, and even if you don’t menstruate you can start to convince others to start switching whether it’s your mom, girlfriend, or even teacher!
Congrats you made it to the end! Thank you so much for reading until the end. I hope this article helped you broaden your knowledge or convince you to start making a chance. If you enjoyed reading my article, don’t forget to give it 50 claps. Or else … just kidding give it the number of claps it deserves ❤
♀ If you liked this article, check out my other article on
- Gender Disparities in Healthcare and the Rise of Femtech
- All about the Vaginal Flora
I’m Liesl, a 16-year-old AI enthusiast from Jakarta, Indonesia 🇮🇩 interested in leveraging emerging technologies to improve people’s lives and solve the world’s biggest problems 🌏 I’m mostly interested in the fields of femtech, music, and gender equity !