This year we've seen various essential products flying off shelves at our supermarkets, creating a shortage in essential items. There hasn't been a better time to make the switch to reusable period products, really. However, the reasons for tossing that tampon goes far beyond convenience and simple necessity.
While single-use plastic - such as straws and coffee cups - have taken the spotlight in the plastic waste conversation, it seems that menstrual products have been flying under the radar. A study investigating public perceptions of disposable menstrual products found that, in general, most people aren’t aware that sanitary pads and tampons are harmful to our environment.
So, why are pads and tampons so damaging to our planet, and our health?
1. Plastic waste
When we look at the waste produced by disposable menstrual care products, it’s clear that plastic waste is a major culprit. Pads are made up of 90% plastic materials, with polyethylene being a common component – from the leak proof and synthetic base of the pad itself, to the copious amount of plastic packaging the pad comes wrapped in. This means that a regular non-organic pad could take 500-800 years to break down, if at all.
On average, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons in their lifetime. Think about that mountain of plastic and multiply that with how many people menstruate. Pretty crazy, hey?
While tampons can biodegrade significantly quicker as they are mostly made from natural materials such as cotton, many brands of tampons come wrapped in plastic, are encased in plastic applicators, have plastic strings dangling from one end and some even contain plastic to improve absorbency.
As the plastic waste gets exposed to the environment in landfills across the world, they slowly break down into tiny fragments called microplastics. Numerous studies have proven these microscopic pieces of plastic to be catastrophic in our natural ecosystems, as they get ingested by wildlife and eventually passed onto humans.
2. Improper disposal
Pads and tampons are single-use disposable products that should be tossed in the rubbish and deposited into landfill. However, this isn’t always the case. A study looking at improper disposal of sanitary waste shows that pads and tampons are commonly flushed down toilets, causing plumbing issues and major problems in wastewater treatment plants. Some of this solid waste will even pass through the sewer system, exacerbating the problem further as they accumulate on beaches and public areas. How lovely.
A recent study compare the solid waste produced by disposable menstrual products to one produced by disposable nappies, which is another single-use waste commonly flushed down toilets. Based on the weight of these products, they estimated that disposable menstrual products have between 18-35% the solid waste mass of nappies. So, not as bad as nappies – but still a bit of an issue...
3. Carbon emissions
Much of the material used in producing pads and tampons is plastic, ultimately produced from non-renewable oil and natural gas.
The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm conducted a Life Cycle Assessment of tampons and found that the largest source of global warming on our planet is caused by the production of LDPE (low-density polyethylene). LDPE is the plastic material used in producing tampon applicators as well as in the plastic strip on the back of sanitary pads.
Other emissions involved in the production of pads and tampons include emissions with acquiring the raw materials, material processing, packaging and distribution.
Quantifying how much plastic waste and emissions are generated by disposable menstrual products is very difficult due to menstrual products being labeled as medical waste, and therefore do not need to be tracked.
4. Health implications
In the 1990s, there was a concern raised regarding the use of dioxin and furan in the bleaching processes of sanitary pads and tampons. These toxic substances have been linked to increase risks of cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease, and skin disease, among other things.
While the last couple of decades have seen manufacturers working hard to modify the bleaching processes and reduce the levels of dioxin contained in their products there hasn’t been any proof that disposable menstrual products are completely dioxin-free.
The use of pesticides has also been detected in the cotton that is used to manufacture tampons. Numerous studies have documented the environmental impacts of pesticide use in farming industries, particularly in the production of cotton.
A study commissioned by the Women’s Voices for the Earth also identified several types of pesticides used in tampons that are possible carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. These studies have alarmingly only looked at the effects of these pesticides through oral and dermal exposures. As far as we are aware, studies analysing the direct exposure of these toxic chemicals through the sensitive vaginal tissue currently do not exist.
Even today, consumer concerns about the safety and health implications of disposable menstrual products continue to be an issue. Due to its definition as medical products, manufacturers are not required by law to document all the components involved in producing pads and tampons.
In October 2015, over 35,000 people signed a petition demanding P&G and Kimberly-Clark, the two main producers of disposable menstrual products, to disclose the materials used in manufacturing their pads and tampons. While this petition led to both companies releasing information on their products, the release only provided a general list of components without indicating their amounts. Some components were also described using vague terms, such as colorants, fragrances, and adhesives.
But we’re going to need something. So, what now?
Luckily, there are many reusable options available including menstrual cups and discs, reusable pads, and period underwear. All with their own unique features and price tag.
A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped reusable cup, usually made out of medical-grade silicone, that is inserted low into the vagina and used to collect flow rather than absorb. You can wear your cup for up to 8 hours and, with the right care, re-use for up to 10 years. A menstrual disc is inserted higher into the vagina, just below the cervix, and is also used to collect flow.
Reusable pads and underwear are exactly what they sound like. They are made from fabric that includes an absorbent layer to collect your flow.
A recent Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of disposable pads, tampons and reusable menstrual cups, analysed both the immediate environmental impact of these products as well as its cost over a lifetime.
The study showed that menstrual cups have a significant reduction in environmental impacts due to reduced plastic waste and carbon emissions at 10% of the cost compared to disposable pads and tampons.
 Abrams, R. 2015, Makers of feminine care products, under pressure, disclose ingredients, The New York Times, pp. B3.
 Ashley, R., Blackwood, D., Souter, N., Hendry, S., Moir, J., Dunkerley, J., Davies, J., Butler, D., Cook, A., Conlin, J., Squibbs, M., Britton, A., and Goldie, P. 2005, ‘Sustainable disposal of domestic sanitary waste’, Journal of Environmental Engineering, vol. 131, no. 2, pp. 206-215.
 Borunda, A., 2019, How tampons and pads became so unsustainable, National Geographic.
 Cotton Today 2020, Pesticide management: environmental impact of cotton insecticide applications.
 Google Books. 2016, Greeniology 2020: greener living today, and in the future.
 Hait, A., and Powers, S. E. 2019, ‘The value of reusable feminine hygiene products evaluated by comparative environmental life cycle assessment’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, vol. 150.
 Oosterhuis, F., Papyrakis, E., and Boteler, B. 2014, ‘Economic instruments and marine litter control’, Ocean and Coastal Management, vol. 102, pp. 47-54.
 Peberdy, E., Jones, A. and Green, D. 2019, ‘A Study into Public Awareness of the Environmental Impact of Menstrual Products and Product Choice’, Sustainability, vol. 11, no. 2, article 473.
 Potter, A. 2019, Menstrual cups and period underwear review: welcome to undieworld, Choice.
 Scranton, A. 2013, Chem fatale: potential health effects of toxic chemicals in feminine care products, Report prepared for Women’s Voices for the Earth.
 U.S. EPA 2017, Learn about dioxin.