When it comes to environmental impact, not all period products are created equal.
While the fight for menstrual equity and ending period poverty includes eliminating the tampon tax and ensuring all people who menstruate have access to the resources to manage their menstruation with safety and dignity, the environmental impact of necessary sanitary items like pads and tampons sometimes gets lost in the conversation.
Throughout history, people have used natural materials like leftover scraps of fabric, soft bark, or whatever else was available and absorbent to manage their periods. Many people who lack access to adequate sanitary products still rely on unsafe materials.
But companies originally marketed disposable period products as necessary tools for modern working women who wanted to be discreet about menstruation, and didn’t highlight the damage they could do to the planet or the chemicals used to make them.
In a lifetime, a single person who menstruates will use somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 pads and tampons and is expected to throw away roughly 400 pounds of period product packaging. In the US, around 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are thrown out every year and a year’s worth of disposable period products leaves a carbon footprint equivalent to 5.3 kilograms (nearly 12 pounds) of CO2. Tampons, pads, and panty liners, their packaging, and wrapping generate more than 200,000 metric tons of waste annually. What’s more, plastic and non-compostable materials in period products can take 500 to 800 years to decompose.
Pads and tampons end up in landfills before they break down into microplastics that pollute oceans, rivers, beaches and contaminate our water supply. The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup collected almost 18,000 used tampons and applicators from beaches around the world in a single day in 2004 and the amount of period product waste has likely increased with the world’s population since.
Period products all have their pros and cons and no one product is perfect, but some are less damaging than others.
Here is a list of five of the most popular period products and how they each affect the environment differently.
Disposable pads have been around since 1896 and are the most commonly used period product worldwide. Many communities opt for pads because stigma and shame around periods perpetuate false beliefs that tampons impact virginity status, can be used for masturbation, and might act as contraception.
Usually made of absorbent materials such as rayon, cotton, and plastics, pads stick to underwear and come in various shapes and sizes to accommodate different flows and activities. Pads have to be changed regularly and are worn on underwear for three to four hours at a time, which can add up over a person’s cycle.
Organic pads made of cellulose and veggie gum glue are compostable but can still take 18 months for products to fully break down.
Unfortunately, it can take 500 to 800 years for the most popular period product to break down. Manufacturing pads and tampons also require using a lot of resources and chemicals that are harmful to the environment.
Reusable pads are made of cloth, and even though they cost more up front, they offer a more economic option than disposables because they last three to five years and replace hundreds of pads and tampons. Reusable pads are more sustainable than disposable pads but also have their downsides. For people living in poverty who lack access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, cloth pads might not always offer the best solution, as they can cause infections if not washed adequately to remove all germs.
Cleaning reusable pads also still requires water, which is in short supply in countries around the world, and detergent, which is a pollutant. They can, however, be repurposed as cleaning rags or other items and biodegrade faster than plastics.
Tampons, which are inserted in the vaginal canal and expand as they absorb menstrual blood, are one of the worst period product offenders when it comes to environmental impact. The majority of tampons are made of absorbent materials such as plastic, rayon, or a blend of cotton and rayon and synthetic fibers, are wrapped in plastic, and often have plastic strings made of polyester or polypropylene and plastic applicators.
Tampon applicators are technically unnecessary but marketers pushed them to capitalize off of the shame around women coming into contact with their genitals and menstrual blood. Most tampons are sold without applicators in Europe and Australia.
The plastics used in tampon applicators are made out of low-density polyethylene (LDPE), an environmentally harmful pollutant that requires energy-intensive processing. Fossil fuel emissions from plastic production are the most harmful to the environment, and while applicators are made of recyclable materials, they aren’t accepted because they’re considered medical waste.
Some people who menstruate choose to use reusable tampon applicators with applicator-free tampons to cut down on using single-use plastic.
Disposable tampons can be up to 90% plastic and amount to the equivalent of four plastic shopping bags in one single-use product. If you do the math, that means people who menstruate are using 20 or more tampons over the course of every period, ammounting to the equivalent of 80 plastic bags per cycle.
When tampons and applicators are flushed down the toilet, they can end up in the ocean when sewer systems fail and harm ecosystems. Tampons can take up to 20 years to break down in marine environments and can cause health complications or death when ingested by animals. Canada and Mexico City have included tampons in their single-use plastics bans for this reason. When the chemicals used in tampons, such as dioxin chlorine and rayon, end up in landfills, they also end up getting soaked up by the earth and are released as pollution into groundwater and the air.
Organic tampons and pads made of natural materials like cotton or bamboo are often compostable in municipal composting facilities and cardboard applicators can be recycled. But even cotton requires six pints of water to grow one bud and most non-organic cotton is saturated in toxic pesticides and insecticides.
For people who menstruate who have a heavy flow and use panty liners in addition to tampons to prevent leaks, combination tampons and liners made of biodegradable cotton can help minimize waste and spend less time in landfills after disposal.
Menstrual cups are bell-shaped devices with a stem made of medical-grade silicone, latex, or thermoplastic isomer that are inserted into the vagina and collect menstrual blood. Menstrual cups are the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective option. While they cost more initially, they can be left in for up to 12 hours, used with limited access to water and sanitation, and last up to six years with proper care.
Menstrual cups are estimated to have less than 1.5% environmental impact of disposable and save a person who menstruates 2,400 pads or tampons in their lifetime. Despite the benefits of menstrual cups, many people who menstruate are still reluctant to adopt them due to stigma and misinformation that they will impact their virginity, or are unsafe.
Silicone, which most menstrual cups are made of, is derived from silica, a type of sand that goes to its original state once it degrades and is an abundant material on earth that isn’t hazardous to the environment.
Period underwear is reusable underwear with multiple absorbent layers of fabric to absorb menstrual blood. Depending on a person’s flow, menstrual underwear can be worn all day. While period underwear does require rinsing and washing, the water consumption necessary for use is still minimal when compared to the production of disposable period products.
Like reusable cloth pads, period underwear requires access to water and sanitation for safe use, which can cause a major barrier for people living in poverty and can be a risk of disease or infection if they aren’t used properly. What’s more, since multiple pairs of period underwear are necessary per cycle, they are not as economical as other period product options.