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Posted on: April 17, 2019 at 5:55 pm
Last updated: April 17, 2019 at 6:31 pm

We hear a lot about the dangers of single-use plastics, from straws to plastic bottles and coffee cups; the list goes on. But menstrual products are adding to the plastic epidemic, and they may be made worse by incorrect disposal.

Did you know that menstrual product, such as conventional tampons and pads contribute to the 5th most common plastic polluting the ocean? According to an assessment done by the European Commission, “sanitary applications,” which include these types of products, rank only behind the likes of drink bottles, cigarette butts, plastic cotton buds (‘Q-tips’), and crips packages (chip bags)[1]. Surprisingly, this category was ahead of more highly publicized polluters such as plastic bags and straws, which ranked 6th and 7th respectively[1].  

While menstruation is a natural part of life, our conventional products have become highly unnatural, wasteful, toxic and impactful to our environment and health.

Conventional menstrual pads actually contain up to 90% plastic [2]. It is said that the average menstrual pad is the equivalent of four plastic grocery bags, according to the non-profit organization City to Sea. But it doesn’t end there – tampons have plastic in them too – found in both the applicator and the string. They can both be made from plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene[2].

How do these end up in the ocean? According to the assessment, the main reason is simple: improper disposal [1]. These conventional products are not biodegradable, and they either end up in landfills, or they get flushed and end up on our beaches, and polluting our oceans [2].

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It’s essential that we do not flush our feminine hygiene products, for many reasons. Tampons should not be flushed. While this disposal is discreet, conventional tampons do not break down in the wastewater system, and since they swell and expand. They cause problems.

Items that shouldn’t be flushed, such as tampons, can end up clogging pipes or they start causing problems once they make their way into the water system. When sewer pipes back up, wastewater overflows, often from manholes. Untreated wastewater can make its way to creeks, streams, rivers – leading to bigger bodies of water. Obviously, this is very bad for the environment.

It is estimated that a year’s worth of typical menstrual product leaves a carbon footprint  of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalent, and the average person who menstruates throws away up to 200 kg of menstrual products  in their lifetime [3][4].

In addition to being toxic to our environment, these products can also be dangerous for our health too.

Women’s menstrual products are categorized as a ‘medical device’, so these manufacturers don’t need to provide full disclosure on the label. Conventional products have odor neutralizers, dyes, pesticides, and fragrances, which have an undisclosed mixture of chemicals that have been linked to endocrine disruptors, allergies, rashes, respiratory distress, cancer, birth defects, dryness, and infertility.

Originally tampons were made of 100% cotton. If this is still your go to, this is what you should be looking for: 100% organic cotton. Currently, conventional tampons have can include:

  • Conventional Cotton: one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world
  • Polyester: This material is an interesting choice, as it doesn’t hold liquid well. Polyester is a plastic derived from crude oil
  • Viscose Rayon: A semi-synthetic fiber most commonly produced by wood pulp, sugar cane, and soy, this sounds natural but the manufacturing of viscose rayon is harmful for our environment.

If we shop organic and/or buy local out of concerns for our health, we should also consider what tampons are made from.

Menstrual products like tampons can also contain dangerous chemicals such as dioxins [4]. While we haven’t studied the diffusion of dioxins from tampons in vivo, we have found that even minuscule exposures to dioxin can accumulate in the body, which may pertain to cumulative effects [4].

More women need to know that there are natural period options, especially since there are currently no regulations over what feminine hygiene companies can put into their products and. Therefore, we do not actually know what chemicals we are putting in our body [5].

It is estimated that a woman will use approximately 11,400 tampons in her menstrual life[4].

While this may just sound like a lot of waste for the planet, it’s also a risk for our health as we’re potentially exposing ourselves to dioxin and other chemicals, 11,400 times

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Thankfully there are non-toxic, sustainable alternatives:

Organic Pads & Tampons

Companies such as NatraCare provide natural period protection, without the plastic. Even natural pads and tampons should not be flushed, they should be disposed of in the garbage. These biodegradable products are made from plant-based, breathable materials and are naturally plastic-free, chlorine-free and perfume-free. These are the easiest alternative as a non-reusable option.

Period-Proof Panties

Technology has come a long way, and period-proof panties are now a thing. THINX makes a line of washable, reusable undies which absorb your period and are a more sustainable solution than single-use disposable products. Depending on your flow (light, medium, heavy), THINX can replace pads, tampons, liners, cups, or can be worn with tampons and cups for extra protection. These panties hold up to 2 tampons’ worth — yet they look and feel like regular underwear. They’re moisture-wicking and are made from breathable cotton which draws away wetness & dries fast, they neutralize any natural smell for all-day freshness, they’re not bulky and they help to keep your clothes, sheets & everything else, stain-free. They’re available in smaller sizes for newbie menstruators too!

Menstrual Cups

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Menstrual cups are a great option for any menstruating human looking to have a more sustainable, economical and healthier period. These cups save the planet from millions of disposable period products ending up in landfills and waterways.

Reusable Pads

Disposable pads & tampons cost almost twice as much as reusables, especially since you have to keep buying them month after month. Reusable products are typically made with more natural and organic materials that are highly absorbent, breathable and leakproof.

Choosing to use natural menstrual pads, period-absorbing panties or cups also work to bring you back in touch with your menstrual cycle and your body. Appreciating your natural cycle can help you to redefine this experience that you share with yourself. This is your cycle, and it can be on your own terms – and we should be empowered by that.

Don’t add to the plastic pollution epidemic, take part in the plastic-free period. It’s better for your health, and the planet too!

More Zero-Waste Articles

  1. European Commission (2018): Commission Staff Working Document Impact Assessment. Reducing Marine Litter: action on single-use plastics and fishing gear. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/single-use_plastics_impact_assessment.pdf
  2. Plastic periods: menstrual products and plastic pollution
    https://friendsoftheearth.uk/plastics/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution.
  3. The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products https://rctom.hbs.org/submission/the-ecological-impact-of-feminine-hygiene-products/
  4. A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products and Personal Lubricants. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/ehp.122-A70
  5. Period Activists Want Tampon Makers to Disclose Ingredients https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/well/live/period-activists-want-tampon-makers-to-disclose-ingredients.html
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Nicole Eckert
Holistic Nutritionist
Nicole Eckert is a Holistic Nutritionist and the Owner + Founder of Holisticole. On her holistic living blog: holisticole.com - you can find amazing clean-eating recipes, informative blog posts and online programs.

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