Plastic-free periods: good for you and the environment
One Change: I was surprised how little I knew about what menstrual products are made from
Have you ever wondered about the environmental impact of your period?
Ever thought about the plastic content of your tampon or sanitary towel? It wasn’t the first thing on my list, I’ll have to admit, when I started writing about sustainability and our culture of disposability. Periods can be bad enough without an added guilt-trip about the environment. But then I started hearing more about “plastic-free periods” and was surprised to discover how little I knew about what menstrual products are made from.
A sanitary towel - which is the preferred product for women around the world - is estimated to contain almost 90 per cent plastic. A packet of sanitary towels is the equivalent, roughly, to five plastic bags. Tampons are approximately 6 per cent plastic but this can vary. Though they are mostly made of cotton, some tampons contain polyester components and the string is often made of plastic and, crucially, the applicator.
A woman will buy between 5,000 and 15,000 sanitary pads or tampons over the course of her lifetime. The vast majority of these items end up in landfill, while many are flushed down the toilet and often end up on the shorelines. Period products are the fifth most common item to be found on beaches around Europe.
The marketing of menstrual products has consistently focused on discretion, which has led to more plastic and more packaging. In 2013 Kotex introduced a tampon with a “softer, quieter wrapper to help keep it secret”. Most sanitary towels are also scented; one study revealed that synthetic fragrances can be made from up to 3,900 chemicals. For such an intimate product, there is shockingly little information on packaging about the plastics or chemicals used – or what effect they may have.
If you use tampons, the most important thing to remember is not to flush it down the toilet. Organic cotton tampons, free from chlorine and perfume, are available from NatraCare and Ilo. Plastic-free and biodegradable sanitary towels and panty-liners are also available from NatraCare, &Sisters and others. Reusable cloth pads, such ImseVimse or Bloom and Nora, come in lots of sizes, colours and are easily washed. These are an investment - about €30 for a pack - that will pay off in the long run, but it’s wise to look at their online tips on making the switch. Period underwear is another new alternative, and is available from LunaPads, Thinx and others. And there’s also the reusable period cup, such as Mooncup or OrganiCup, which is made of silicone and designed to collect menstrual blood.
You’ll have to go to health stores or online to buy most of these products but here’s hoping that they become more widely available - and talked about - soon. Women have a right to more transparency about the content and sustainability of menstrual products - and mainstream brands need to urgently up their game.