As we strive towards a zero-waste lifestyle, it's important to consider disposable period products' negative impact on our bodies and the environment. Unfortunately, many of us have experienced the frustration of trying countless brands of traditional pads and tampons in search of one that won't cause discomfort or irritation.
But the truth is that disposable menstrual products are more than just a nuisance - they are harmful to our planet. This article will explore the problems associated with traditional period products and introduce you to eco-friendly alternatives for feminine hygiene. So, let's step towards a more sustainable period and discover the benefits of a zero-waste approach.
Most of us are not aware of the dangers of disposable, plastic-based period products. Most of the tampons and pads we use contain plastic materials. These products do not decay completely when they end up in landfills. Instead, they contribute to plastic pollution in our environment.
We also need to consider the effects of using plastic-based period products on our reproductive health conditions. Let’s examine the environmental effects of using unsustainable menstrual hygiene products here.
Plastic pollution is an environmental problem in every aspect of our lives—many things we are involved in as humans include plastics. Menstruation is no exception.
Different components of your typical off-the-shelf sanitary products add up to provide leak-proof, convenient menstrual hygiene.
Companies use plastic and other synthetic materials, like rayon and viscose, alongside cotton and other fabrics to achieve these aims. Tampons have fewer core components than pads. However, their surface material, absorbent core, strings, applicators, and packaging regularly contain polythene and polyester.
Now, let’s talk about the number of pads and tampons that end up at landfill in a year.
According to exploratory research in the United Kingdom, about 15 million people have their periods for about 40 years. So, these people use an estimated value of 3.3 billion units of period products annually. Simplifying it further, an average person uses between 192 to 240 pads and tampons annually, depending on their menstrual flow and the number of days their period lasts2.
With these numbers, can you imagine the number of menstrual products we dispose of yearly?
Research showed disposable menstrual hygiene products produced about 28,114 tons of waste yearly. As you might expect, not all 28,000 tons of this waste ends up in landfills. 4% of this offensive waste is in our environment. Studies on sewer solid waste showed that sewage waste comprises 25% tampons and 3.8% pad waste6.
If the numbers we discussed apply globally, they highlight quite how much trash disposable period products create, some of which end up in the environment.
The chemical components of these menstrual hygiene products are damaging. These plastic waste products enter our oceans and seas, causing harm to the marine ecosystem. The production of plastic products increases the rate of global warming, and its impact on our environment contaminates our water sources and causes harm to our health.
The intimate area is so sensitive, and chemicals in some tampons and pads can cause harm to a person’s reproductive health1. These harmful chemicals include fragrances, dioxins, phthalates, BPA, BPS, glyphosate, pesticides, and petrochemical additives.
The outer reproductive area can easily catch infections, and it doesn't help that manufacturers don’t provide access to the ingredients they used to produce them. Some of these chemicals cause irritations, allergies, endocrine disruption, hormonal dysfunction, cancer, and reproductive issues.
Also, these chemicals can lead to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). TSS is a serious illness from wearing tampons and pads for long hours.
Disposable sanitary pads and tampons are expensive, and some people cannot afford them. Period poverty isn't a myth. About 16.9 million menstruating people live in poverty in the United States, and two-thirds experience period poverty5.
Sometimes people are forced to choose between food and period products. It affects them physically, mentally, and emotionally. Also, the pink tax, also known as the tampon tax, contributes to the high rate of inaccessibility of hygiene products. The pink tax is a gender-based pricing system where feminine products are more expensive than masculine products3.
Having examined the problems with traditional pads and tampons, let's explore the benefits of a zero-waste period. Here are three benefits of using reusable period products:
Purchasing period products over a person's lifetime costs a lot of money. Let’s say a person who uses 192 pads in a year menstruates for 40 years. During these 40 years, they used 7,680 pads. The average cost of sanitary pads is $13.25 monthly. So, a person spends over $6,000 on pads in a lifetime.
$6,000 is a staggering amount of money to be spent on period products. By contrast, zero-waste menstrual products are reusable and can last for several years, meaning you'll spend less money over time.
While the initial cost of purchasing a reusable menstrual product may be higher, the long-term savings are significant. For instance, a menstrual cup costs between $20 to $40 and can last several years, far less than the thousands of dollars spent on disposable pads and tampons.
Moreover, the financial benefits of zero-waste menstruation are not limited to menstrual products alone. By reducing your reliance on disposable products, you can save money on waste disposal fees, reduce your carbon footprint, and promote a more sustainable lifestyle.
An important benefit of the zero-waste period is its environmental impact. Zero-waste periods are kinder to the environment, unlike their disposable counterparts. Earlier in the article, we mentioned the dangers of disposable pads to the environment. Plastic pollution is a prevalent battle the world is fighting desperately to win.
Zero-waste period products help us reduce plastic pollution and the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment and landfills. Also, it prevents the harmful chemicals present in period sanitary products from leaking into the environment and contaminating the soil fauna and water sources.
Another compelling reason to consider zero-waste periods is their protection for your reproductive health. As mentioned, disposable pads and tampons often contain harmful chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)4, dioxins, and synthetic fragrances. Your body can absorb these chemicals, which may cause irritation, inflammation, and hormonal disruption.
You can avoid exposing your body to these harmful chemicals and protect your reproductive health by using zero-waste menstrual products. Most zero-waste products are made from natural and organic materials such as organic cotton, bamboo, and silicone, which are gentle on your skin and free from harsh chemicals.
In addition, using zero-waste products can reduce your risk of developing toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This potentially life-threatening condition has been associated with the use of conventional tampons.
A zero-waste period is not just an eco-friendly but also a healthy choice for your body. You can promote better reproductive health and well-being by eliminating harmful chemicals from your menstrual routine.
You can achieve a zero-waste period by purchasing zero-waste period products. These zero-waste menstrual products are:
Zero-waste menstrual cups are reusable menstrual products that come in the shape of a small, flexible funnel. The material used to produce zero-waste menstrual cups is medical-grade silicone. It is very sustainable and easy to use.
All you have to do is insert it into your vagina. It sits comfortably and collects your blood flow. However, discuss with your doctor before you use a menstrual cup because there are many things you need to consider.
You need to consider the length of your cervix, period flow, the flexibility of the cup, the strength of your pelvic floor, capacity, and age. These criteria will help you choose the best menstrual cup for your period.
Some benefits of using a menstrual cup are:
Since menstrual cups are reusable, they need maintenance for maximum experience. To clean your period cups after use, simply use hypoallergenic soap to wash them. You should sanitize your cups after your entire cycle by boiling them for a few minutes. Then, place it on a clean surface to dry.
Sanitizing your cups helps prevent the growth of bacteria. Some brands sell cups with sanitizing cups. With a sanitizing cup, you can fill it with water and place it in the microwave to boil for a few minutes.
Reusable period pads are pads made from sustainable fabrics, usually organic cotton. You use them like you would use a pad. However, you wash them and reuse them, unlike disposable sanitary pads.
Reusable cloth-made pads are free from the toxic chemicals present in traditional pads. They are comfortable and harm-free. Its added advantage is its firmness. Once you wear it, it doesn't slip like its disposable counterpart. So you won't experience blood stains on your outfits.
Here are some benefits of zero-waste menstrual pads:
To maintain your zero-waste menstrual pads, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes as soon as you finish using them. Soaking helps to get rid of all blood stains. It is advisable to soak it with the stained part facing downwards as the blood falls to the bottom of the bowl instead of entering deeper into the pad.
Rinse all the blood out with cold water before you wash it with soap. You can wash your reusable pads by hand or use a washing machine. It is best if you dry it under direct sunlight, but stretch it out to its original shape before you dry it.
Zero-waste period underwear is like regular underwear, except it has absorbent layers of fabric that absorb your blood. There are three reasons for you to get period panties. First, a person with a heavy flow can use it with pads for extra period protection. This way, you avoid leaks and period stains.
You can also use period panties during the last days of your cycle because of the light flow. Using it as a panty liner. Or, you can use it if you have a light flow during your entire cycle. Period panties can hold twice as much blood as tampons and pads can.
Maintaining period panties is very easy. You just have to wash them like you wash your regular underwear. However, do not tumble dry them or iron them. Instead, dry them under direct sunlight.
Related: What To Do With Old Underwear & Socks?
Biodegradable tampons differ from the disposable tampons you are familiar with. They make organic tampons with 100% organic cotton and are free from fragrances and other chemicals.
They grow the cotton used to produce these tampons without pesticides and herbicides. Organic tampons also come with reusable tampon applicators, making them safe for you and the environment.
It doesn’t take a lot to clean your reusable tampon applicator. Just wash the applicator after wearing tampons and dry it over clean surfaces.
In conclusion, transitioning to a zero-waste period is an important step towards a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle. Using eco-friendly alternatives to traditional period hygiene products can reduce our environmental impact and save money in the long run.
In addition, practicing zero-waste menstruation can help address the issue of period poverty by providing affordable and sustainable options for all.
With so many benefits, it's no wonder that more and more people are making the switch to zero-waste periods. By exploring sustainable brands and finding the right products that work for you, you can enjoy a waste-free period that is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.
Lin, N., Ding, N., Meza-Wilson, E., Manuradha Devasurendra, A., Godwin, C., Kyun Park, S., & Batterman, S. (2020). Volatile organic compounds in feminine hygiene products sold in the US market: A survey of products and health risks. Environment international, 144, 105740.
L.A.G. Blair, Y. Bajón -Fernández, R. Villa, An exploratory study of the impact and potential of menstrual hygiene management waste in the UK, Cleaner Engineering and Technology, Volume 7, 2022, 100435, ISSN 2666-7908
Guittar, S. G., Grauerholz, L., Kidder, E. N., Daye, S. D., & McLaughlin, M. (2022). Beyond the pink tax: gender-based pricing and differentiation of personal care products. Gender Issues, 39(1), 1-23.
United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA (2021) Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality EPA.gov.
Annette Mettler, Silvia Schönenberger, Daniela Gunz, J. M., Michel, J., Mettler, A., Schönenberger, S., & Gunz, D. (2022, February 22). Period poverty: why it should be everybody’s business | Published in Journal of Global Health Reports. Period Poverty: Why It Should Be Everybody’s Business | Published in Journal of Global Health Reports.
Eran Friedler, David M. Brown, David Butler, A study of WC derived sewer solids, Water Science and Technology, Volume 33, Issue 9, 1996, Pages 17-24, ISSN 0273-1223
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.