How eco-friendly menstrual products are turning the tide against plastic waste
The average person who menstruates will, in their lifetime, spend up to 8.2 years on their period. During that time, those who have access to single-use period products will dispose of 12,000 pads – the equivalent of 150 kg, or enough to fill two minibuses. Extrapolating to the UK, the Women’s Environmental Network estimates 200,000 tonnes of menstrual products make their way into landfills and waterways every year.
We are well aware that drink bottles, grocery bags and food wrappers make up much of the plastic waste found in the environment. A perhaps lesser-known fact is conventionally made menstrual products such as tampons, pads and panty liners are one of the most common single-use plastic products found in the marine environment, beating out coffee cups, cutlery or straws. Plastic tampon applicators can take hundreds of years to break down, while microplastics contained in the applicators, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, are ingested by marine species, adversely affecting corals, planktons, fish, seabirds and other aquatic wildlife.
Period underwear is a behavior change. Most people use the period solution that was passed down from their parents or guardians, that was passed down to them from the generation before, so this concept is still new– Alice Warren, Director of Communications, Thinx
Fortunately, the use of eco-friendly and reusable period products, including menstrual cups, reusable panties and pads, are turning the tide against plastic waste. According to a collaborative report by Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF) and Partners for a Healthy Environment (PGL), use of a single menstrual cup could result in “99% reduction in waste compared to the use of single-use products.” The report estimates that waste in 28 European countries could be reduced by almost 100,000 tonnes per year, if just 20% of users opted for a single-use cup. The good news doesn’t stop there. In addition to a large reduction in plastic pollution, alternatives are cost-effective, help reduce pollution in manufacturing and decrease health risks.
So, what are the options? Menstrual cups are soft but flexible bell-shaped cups made from medical grade silicone, latex or TPE, which can hold up to 30 millilitres of liquid (the equivalent of which would require six regular size tampons) for up to 12 hours. Founded in Denmark in 2012, Organicup states that use of just one menstrual cup could save 528 conventional period products over the course of two years. The company has now sold over one million cups worldwide.
Like conventional pads and panty liners, reusable pads absorb menstrual fluid externally and come in varying sizes, including pantyliners and those made for day and night wear. Most washable pads are made from materials such as hemp, organic cotton, organic bamboo and polyester and can hold up to four tampon’s worth of menstrual fluid. Many brands, such as Vancouver, Canada-based Lunapad, have become B Corp Certified, implement zero waste practices, and create low carbon supply chains to reduce their environmental impact.
Period underwear offers another reusable alternative to conventional menstrual products. Lack of innovation in the period care space since the 1930’s inspired the founders of the US-based company Thinx to launch its reusable period underwear in 2013. Products can be worn for up to 24 hours, but as Thinx Director of Communications Alice Warren notes, this is usually a personal preference as their ‘undies’ are measured by absorbency. “Most of our fans would say they put them on in the morning and then switch to a new pair to sleep in, or perhaps the next morning, depending on their flow that day,” Warren says.
The UK government’s decision to scrap the “tampon tax” in January 2021 will apply to all menstrual products, including reusable options. Increased financial accessibility may tip the scale in favour of reusable products for those on the fence. A 2018 report indicated that 59% of people who have periods are either using some form of reusable product or are considering it. According to Warren, one of the keys to change is education. “[At Thinx] we have learned that product education is key. Period underwear is a behavior change. Most people use the period solution that was passed down from their parents or guardians, that was passed down to them from the generation before, so this concept is still new.”
As officials decide which products should be covered by next year’s EU Single-Use Plastics Directive, there is evidence of the directive’s plans to limit use of single-use menstrual products through marketing and labelling requirements and awareness-raising measures. Perhaps we are, indeed, entering a period of change.
Feature photo credit: Thinx