While single-use plastic 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 pads and tampons are harmful both to our health, and our planet.
But how..? Let's break it down.
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, 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, most are encased in plastic applicators, have plastic strings dangling from one end, and some even contain plastic to improve absorbency.
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. Lovely.
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.
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 are linked to the increased 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.
But we're going to need something. So, what now?
There are many reusable options available including period cups and discs, reusable pads, and period underwear. All with their own unique features and price tag.
A period 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 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.
All good alternatives if you are looking to up your period game.