A pantyliner or tampon might seem like a tiny, inconsequential thing, but just as menstrual management products can affect your personal health, they can also have a significant environmental impact. In fact, in North America alone, close to 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators are sent to landfills every year. Landfills, in turn, are a top source of methane emissions, which in light if the recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”), is even more of a problem than previously believed. According to the IPCC, it’s not enough to cut carbon dioxide emissions if we hope to avoid a climate catastrophe, methane, another heat trapping green house gas, must be reduced as well. This makes it all the more imperative for consumers to be mindful of the products they use that end up in landfills, and to try to cut consumption when possible.
The average person who menstruates will do so for around four decades of their life and will use somewhere around 9,000-10,000 tampons to manage menstruation. According to the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (View Price on Amazon), this means that the average person who has periods throws away up to 300 pounds of period-related products away in a lifetime. This statistic alone makes me want to create a monstrous menstrual art installation.
Thanks to all that plastic, these products can take centuries to biodegrade. Disposal is not the only problem, however.
The carbon footprint of a tampon
The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm carried out a Life Cycle Assessment of tampons to determine their entire ecological footprint. Data showed that the largest impact came from the production of plastic tampon applicators and the plastic strip on the back of sanitary pads. These are made from LDPE (low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic) (R).
Production of these plastic components of pads and tampons requires massive amounts of fossil fuel. Indeed, a year’s worth of period products was estimated by a Harvard researcher to have a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents (R). In comparison, the carbon footprint from comparable use of Natracare products was estimated at 3.4 kg CO2 equivalents a year; roughly a 35 percent reduction in impact (R). As yet, there has been no solid research examining the carbon footprint of menstrual cups and/or reusable pads, but the likelihood is that this would be lower given the years of reuse for these products.
Reusable pads can also be repurposed as cleaning rags or other items once they start to fray and will also biodegrade faster than plastics. Menstrual cups cannot be recycled, but the difference in sheer volume of waste between these and disposable pads and tampons is striking.
Environmental pollution and period products
Demonstrating all too well the impact of our choices on the environment, The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup reported collecting almost 18,000 used tampons and applicators from beaches around the world in a single day in 2004; that number has likely increased along with the world’s population in the last decade and a half (R).
How do these items end up on beaches? Well, despite knowing not to, many people flush tampons and applicators, meaning that they end up in sewers and waterways. Putting them in the garbage to go to landfill is not much better, but it is the best option, given that the plastics and chemicals in these products can injure wildlife and accumulate in the ecosystem, eventually increasing our own exposure to lingering dioxins, phthalates, and so forth.
Happily, organic all-cotton tampons and pads are often compostable, although usually only in municipal composting facilities (not at home). Some do feature plastic components, though, so check with the manufacturer to be sure. Cardboard applicators can also be recycled, and some wrappers may also be compostable if made with cornstarch or other biodegradable materials. And, Dame, a company in the UK, is set to launch a silicon-based reusable tampon applicator that fits any disposable tampon, further helping to cut down the number of disposable plastic applicators that end up in landfill or in the oceans.
In general, organic all-cotton tampons are preferable to pads and other types of tampon in terms of carbon footprint, but these are likely not the greenest, healthiest, or most affordable option overall. Menstrual cups, period underwear, and reusable pads and tampons are all better options in terms of the environmental impact, health, and affordability. Used, cleaned, and stored correctly, menstrual cups can last for many years (estimates vary from two to ten, or longer), making them the more cost-efficient choice as well.
The financial cost of menstruation
For decades, people who have periods have campaigned for menstrual management products to be tax-free, provided free of charge in schools, and to generally be made more available and accessible even for those with low or fixed incomes. This year, I was happy to hear the provincial government of BC, where I live, announce that they would begin providing tampons and pads for free in schools in the province.
While a good start, it would be even better if there were a commitment to ensure these supplies are also eco-friendly and non-toxic, or that everyone who needs one is issued with a reliable menstrual cup and set of reusable pads. Perhaps this is a sign that we need more menstruators in government….
Why does it matter if schools and other institutions make period management products low cost or free? Well, consider the following calculations:
Four years (48 months) of tampons and pads – $540:
$5 for a box of 20 tampons x 13 cycles a year – $260
$7 for a box of pantiliners or pads x 10 per year – $280
XO Flo Period Kit Plus from GladRags (menstrual cup plus reusable pads and extras): $90
Basically, after just eight months of using a menstrual cup and pads, you’ll start saving money you would otherwise be spending on tampons and disposable pantiliners. And, chances are, these reusable options will last you for many years.
Yes, reusable pads and period underwear require rinsing and washing, and menstrual cups can’t be recycled, but the water consumption and energy use related to these products is negligible compared to what goes into producing, transporting, and disposing of disposable period products.
It’s also worth stopping for a moment to consider that teens who menstruate are looking at spending a considerable amount of money on menstrual management every year, putting them at a disadvantage to peers who do not have to cover these costs.
Other considerations for the eco-conscious consumer
There are plenty of period products on the market that claim to be eco-friendly because they’re reusable, but the truth is that many of the companies producing these products pay little or no attention to things such as dyes, packaging, and how the products are made.
The best of the best pay attention to all of these things by using vegetable-based dies, minimal packaging (which can be recycled), and off-setting carbon costs of production by supporting sustainability projects.