How environmentally friendly is your period? It may not have been a thought you've had before, but it's worth contemplating. Most of us use pads or tampons, which have been around in various forms for centuries, throughout our lives. But tampon disposal can have a serious, and scary, environmental impact. Luckily, though, there are ways to improve the sustainability of your period, while still using your preferred product.
According to the Association of Reproductive Health Care Professionals, people who menstruate will have, on average, 450 periods over their lifetime, from our menarche (first period) to the beginning of menopause. That number differs widely, because menstruation doesn't come as one-size-fits-all; but every period has an environmental impact. Pads, tampons and the products that come with them, from packaging to liners, aren't necessarily recyclable, and that's proving to be a bit of an environmental challenge.
Part of the problem is a consumerist culture around health products. “As consumers, we are constantly encouraged to buy more products, and convinced that those we already own should be replaced by ‘new’ and ‘improved’ items," Kath Clements, Campaigns and Marketing Manager for Mooncup, tells Bustle. But that may not be the best approach when it comes to your period. "Just one of us uses on average 11,000 throwaway tampons and pads in a lifetime," Clements says. And that means that our monthly visitor can have a big environmental toll. Here are some of the numbers behind our period, as well as the ways to make it better.
It's estimated that, every year, over 45 billion products related to periods, including tampons, pads and applicators, are thrown in the garbage. And tampons make up a large part of that weight. The Ocean Conservancy collected 27,938 used tampons and applicators on beaches around the world in a single day in 2015. Tampons themselves, because they've been used to capture human waste, are not recyclable, and despite being told not to, many of us flush them away, where they're likely to end up in sewer systems and in waterways.
But putting them in the trash, which is how they're meant to be properly disposed of, doesn't necessarily help the issue; they'll just go to landfill. Organic cotton tampons are technically compostable and biodegradable, but they're incredibly slow to break down, so it's not recommended that you put them on the compost heap. Applicators are more promising: cardboard applicators can often be recycled properly. But plastic applicators, wrapping, and packaging often can't. A study in Stockholm found that one of the biggest environmental impacts of periods is the use of plastic applicators, because they're made of low-density polyethylene that will take centuries to biodegrade. If you're an applicator user, try to find cardboard ones — and dispose of your tampons in the appropriate way.
A year's worth of period products, estimate Harvard scientists, leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents. And pads aren't exempt: up to 90 percent of the materials in pads themselves and their packaging are plastics that aren't recyclable. It's been calculated that the environmental impact of one pad is the same as four plastic bags, largely because of the problem of polyethelene, which is notoriously difficult to break down.
The issue with pads is, as with tampons, also to do with attached products that have to be thrown away. The plastic liners and fastening materials that feature on basically every pad aren't biodegradable. Even organic kinds that are made of pure cotton are still disposable and, while they won't last as long on landfill, will still count as human waste.
So What Can We Do About It?
Fortunately there are many options to make your period more eco-friendly — and, frankly, more affordable. Menstrual cups are much more environmentally friendly than disposable pads and tampons, because they're made of reusable plastic using sustainable methods, and have a long lifespan. If you keep it clean and store it correctly, one cup can last between two and four years.
Other options include period underpants, which absorb period blood and require washing out rather than the purchase of new sanitary products every month, and reusable, washable pads. Remember to wash them on eco-friendly settings on your washing machine. And if you'd like to dispose of your tampons in a way that's marginally more eco-friendly, biodegradable miniature bags are now available for you to use for disposing of your used ones. They'll do better on landfill than they would inside your plastic trash bag.