Bathroom Essentials

The Environmental Impacts of Period Products

Jane Pennoyer
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Aah, the period -- long a source of pain, relief, shame, excitement, and anticipation. If you experience menstruation, you have probably wondered what people did before modern conveniences like tampons and small-but-mighty pads. As it turns out, people have gotten pretty creative over the years. From homemade tampons and pads to menstrual aprons and rags (hence the phrase “on the rag”), we’ve found all kinds of ways to manage and hide our periods over the centuries. It wasn’t until the 1920s that disposable menstrual products became available, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that these products began to contain plastic. Today, most conventional tampons contain plastic, and pads are up to 90% plastic. Considering the fact that over 50% of the world’s population menstruates, that makes for a whole lot of plastic -- and a whole lot of plastic that ends up as waste. Before breaking down the environmental implications of this waste, we’re asking you to buckle up for a lesson on ancient period tales and the history of modern menstrual products. 

Period lore ranges from mythical to medical to straight up phobic. In ancient Greece, menstrual blood was seen as an unhealthy and potentially harmful excess that people needed to shed in order to remain balanced. This belief was rooted in 5th and 4th century BCE Hippocratic texts, which stated that women’s flesh absorbs fluid from what they eat and drink, and if the fluid doesn’t come out of the body each month, it will cause sickness. As if women in ancient Greece needed another reason to be stressed out during their cycle! Aristotle had a more biblical view on menstruation, likening period blood to the flow of blood from a sacrificed animal. His take can be interpreted in all sorts of ways -- there’s definitely something in there about the sacrifice of the female body in producing offspring -- but in ancient Greece, this may have been seen as an honor since animal sacrifice was a mode of communication between humans and gods. Natural History, a scientific encyclopedia of questionable accuracy published in 77 CE by Pliny the Elder, pushed the menstrual-phobic idea that blood was pollution arising from the female body that Pliny said caused menstruating women to wilt flowers and kill insects with their touch. This theory was popular in the early Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and was even resurrected in 20th century America. In the 1920s, this mysterious “pollution” was given the name “menotoxin,” and there were serious medical debates about its existence. The idea that people once believed period blood to be toxic may seem ludicrous, but it all starts to make sense when we consider today’s culture of shame and stigma surrounding the menstruation cycle. Those beliefs are all rooted in man-made myths that we haven’t managed to fully shake off. 

While men have been busy inventing lore around the menstrual cycle for centuries, they didn’t get to creating solutions for period management until the 1920s. Before disposable pads and tampons were invented, women used fabric, medical gauze, paper, aluminum menstrual cups, even rubber pants. Sounds… uncomfortable. It’s important to acknowledge that the history of menstruation is mostly written by men, so there may very well have been means of managing menstruation that we just don’t know about. Nonetheless, up until about a century ago, women mostly upcycled or reused textiles to absorb their period blood. In 1921, Kotex brought forth the era of the disposable menstrual product with the first mass-marketed modern pad. The Kotex pad was made of Cellucotton, an absorbent, plant-based material used for medical purposes in World War I. About a decade later in 1933, Earle Haas patented the first modern disposable tampon, a wad of compressed cotton with an applicator made of telescoping paper tubes. These disposable options brought with them convenience and liberation for women. Finally, women could go to work and school on their period and not have to worry about the shame of exposing their most basic biological truth. But, as we’ve learned, convenience often has a host of negative consequences -- in this case, the negative consequences of disposable menstrual products are environmental. Before we dig in, however, let’s make one thing clear -- we are all for convenience and comfort when it comes to the menstrual cycle. If we’re going to have to operate “normally” while shedding our uterine lining, let’s make it as burden-free as possible. However, there are products that rival the convenience of disposable tampons and pads and are much more gentle on our landfills (and wallets). Let’s get into it.

TAMPONS

The average American who menstruates will use over 16,000 tampons throughout their lifetime. It is estimated that in 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons. This is pretty alarming when you consider the fact that the vast majority of those tampons will end up in landfills as plastic waste. Today, most conventional tampons contain plastic in their wrappers, applicators, strings, and sometimes even have a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part itself. That’s a whole lot of plastic sitting first inside our bodies and then in landfills. Although some applicators are technically made of recyclable materials, they are usually not accepted by recycling plants for sanitary reasons. And guess what? The plastic incorporated into tampons today is there for convenience rather than necessity. A tampon doesn’t need any plastic to serve its function. 

Aside from the massive amount of plastic waste associated with tampons, have you ever wondered what exactly you’re putting into your body? Because formulas are considered trade secrets, tampon manufacturers aren’t required to tell you everything that goes in their products. This means that tampons with “fragrance” could contain a host of nasty chemicals like phthalates and synthetic musks, which are known to disrupt hormones and can lead to developmental and fertility problems. Pretty unsettling, huh? Many tampons are also bleached with chlorine to achieve that super-white-and-clean look. Chlorine bleach can contain dioxins and furans, which are known to cause cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity. We’ll pass. Side note: What’s with our obsession as a society to have the things that are intentionally meant to clean and soak up liquids look super pristine to start? The same question goes for paper towels

From unnecessary plastic waste to potentially harmful chemicals, we are not fans of conventional tampons. However, if tampons are your menstrual product of choice, there are some great chlorine-free, fragrance-free, and plastic-free options for you by Natracare, Lola, and Rael.

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DISPOSABLE PADS

If you thought tampons were bad, we’ve got some disheartening news -- disposable pads are even worse. From the sticky plastic (usually made of polypropylene or polyethylene) “backsheet”, to the synthetic absorbent cores that soak up fluid, pads are mostly made of plastic. 

As is the case with tampons, pad manufacturers aren’t required to tell you what’s in their products since their formulas are considered trade secrets. This leaves women vulnerable to a host of nasty chemicals like dioxins, phthalates, adhesive chemicals like methyldibromo glutaronitrile, which can cause reproductive harm and endocrine disruption. Seriously though, who thought it was a good idea to put all these chemicals right next to our hoo-has?

SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

TLDR: Disposable tampons and pads take a heavy toll on our environment, wallets, and landfills. In North America alone, 20 billion tampons, pads, and applicators end up in landfills annually, and it’s estimated they’ll take 500-800 years to fully decompose. Time to find an alternative.

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OPTION A: MENSTRUAL CUPS

Menstrual cups, originally patented in 1867, were first made out of aluminum or stiff rubber. We’ve never tried a vintage menstrual cup, but they sound incredibly uncomfortable and we can only imagine why they weren’t widely used at the time. In 1956, the design was improved by Leona Chalmers, who patented a new menstrual cup made with softer materials. In the beginning of the 21st century, soft medical-grade silicone changed the game. Now, over 100 different companies across the world produce menstrual cups, and many people find them to be quite easy to use and reliable. As a bonus, menstrual cups have to be replaced every 1-10 years (rather than after every use like tampons), so you can save a lot of money over time if you’re willing to invest in one upfront. If the price for menstrual products stays consistent for the next 10 years, those who chose a $23 menstrual cup could save up to 95% of what they would otherwise spend on pads, and up to 93% of what they would otherwise spend on tampons. Say what?! That’s a lot of money. 

Beyond the economics of menstrual cups, they contribute only 0.4% of the plastic waste that single-use pads produce, and 6% of the plastic waste of tampons over 10 years. The difference in percentages is attributed to the fact that pads contain much more plastic than tampons. While menstrual cups do have to be rinsed between uses and boiled after each cycle, they still require a lot less water throughout their lifecycle than disposable products, and have only 1.5% of the environmental impact compared to disposables. While they aren’t biodegradable or widely recycled, the landfill impact of throwing out one menstrual cup every few years is negligible compared to the landfill impact of throwing away hundreds of tampons and pads over the same amount of time. PLUS, most menstrual cups are made out of silicone, aka silica sand, one of the most abundant minerals in the Earth’s crust. If it finds its way to the ocean it will eventually break down into its original (and harmless) silica sand state instead of into harmful microplastics

Our favorite menstrual cup brands are Saalt, DivaCup, Lena, Sckoon, and Dutchess Cup. This guide is helpful if you aren’t sure which one is best for you.

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OPTION B: COMPARABLY-BETTER DISPOSABLE OPTIONS

If you use disposable tampons and pads and aren’t ready to switch to an alternative, we’ve still got you covered; there are plenty of organic, chlorine-free, fragrance-free, and plastic-free options out there. One of our faves is from Natracare, which reports that by switching from conventional tampons and pads to their products, you can reduce your menstrual product carbon footprint by 35% annually. That’s enough of an impact for us to give it a try.

Here are a few other tips next time you’re shopping for disposable menstrual products: 

Look for chlorine-free or unbleached tampons and pads. Chlorine bleach can contain dioxins and furans, which are known to cause cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity.

Look for fragrance-free tampons and pads. Fragrances can contain undisclosed chemicals associated with allergic reactions, endocrine disruption, and cancer.

Choose tampons and pads made out of organic cotton. Conventional cotton can contain nasty pesticide residues that can lead to endocrine disruption and cancer. 

Ditch the plastic tampon applicator! A Life Cycle Assessment performed on tampons by the Royal Institute of Technology revealed that the largest environmental impact of tampons comes from the production of plastic applicators made of LDPE (low-density polyethylene). 

Buy reusable pads! They’re a one-way ticket to reducing the amount of waste associated with period management. Just soak them in water when you’re done using them, and then throw them in the wash with the rest of your clothing. Ta-da! Good as new. And yes, the rest of your clothes will be fine. In fact, since the impact of a laundry cycle can be pretty high, we highly encourage you to be sure you’re washing your pads in a full load to avoid unnecessary water and energy waste. While the upfront cost of reusables is higher than that of disposables, you can use them over and over and over again, saving money over time. Our favorites are from Rael, Think ECO, and Aisle

Read our Wise Guides to learn more about tampons and pads.

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OPTION C: PERIOD UNDERWEAR

Companies like Thinx, Dear Kate, TomboyX, and Saalt make washable underwear that absorbs menstrual fluid. Since period underwear is generally reusable for up to two years, it can help you reduce the material solid waste associated with your period by up to 96%. While they’re not perfect (period undies rely on polyester and other petroleum-based materials for stretch and absorption), they’re darn near close. No more bunched up pads sliding around your underwear or leaving sticky residue on your fav pair of briefs -- just throw them into a full load of laundry with the rest of your clothes and hang to dry.

AT THE END OF THE DAY

Tampons are used by up to 70% of menstruating people in the U.S., which means there’s a big opportunity here to lessen the impact of menstrual products in America. For disposable period care, switch to chlorine-free, fragrance-free, and plastic-free tampons and pads. If you’re able to go the reusable route, look no further than period cups, reusable pads, and period underwear. Whatever you decide, know that reusable > disposable in the world of menstrual products. And don’t forget to wash your reusable pads and panties in full loads of laundry!

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