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Periods, Plastic-Waste and Sustainable Alternatives


Periods, Plastic-Waste and Sustainable Alternatives

It’s pretty much common knowledge these days that the large majority of period products on the market are far from sustainable.  

The average person with a period will reach menarche (the arrival of their first period) between the ages of 11 and 15 and will continue to have a monthly bleed roughly every 28-38 days for anywhere between four and eight days until they’re in their 50s. When you crunch the numbers, on average, people who menstruate will do so for anywhere between six and ten solid years! That’s a pretty substantial amount of time and requires a pretty large amount of absorbent equipment…

Obviously everyone’s cycles and period needs vary quite a bit so it’s difficult to place a figure on exactly how many products people with periods will use over the course of their lifetime.

A recent study suggests however that, based on an average of 38 years of menstruation, 13 cycles per year, using 22 items of sanitary products per cycle, the number lies somewhere around 11,000-16,000 disposable pads, pantyliners and/or tampons. 

That’s half the human population using that many disposable, plastic-infused products. These products largely end up getting flushed down the toilet or sent to the landfill and many unfortunately wash into the ocean. 

If we continue on our current trajectory, the world’s oceans will contain 937 million tonnes of plastic (obviously not ALL down to period care products) by 2050; substantially more than the total weight of fish.

Plastics can take 500 years or more to breakdown; and when they do, they break down into microplastics (particles that are smaller than 5mm) which contaminate soil, air and water supplies and accumulate in food systems.

A 2019 study by the WWF found that on average, humans are ingesting 5g of plastic in total every week… Brace yourself… That’s the equivalent of munching a whole credit card. 

The biggest microplastic containing culprits are bottled water, alcohol, air, tap water, seafood, sugar and salt. In Europe, around 72% of tap water now contains plastic with nearly two plastic fibres per 500ml. 

The sources? Tyre and brake dust, plastic bottles and packaging and clothing are very bad and so too are plastic-derived textiles and clothing. But period products factor into the mix a pretty significant amount as well. 

Following the publication of this study, Head of Marine Policy at WWF said, “Plastic is polluting our planet in the deepest ocean trenches, but now we know that it’s also polluting our own bodies, through the food we eat and the water we drink.”

The mass-production of synthetic plastic which began at the start of the 20th century provided endless opportunities for manufacturing and resulted in some undoubtedly incredible inventions and accomplishments. It was a revolutionary, light, flexible, cheap material and, to begin with, it was thought that it would actually protect the natural world from exploitation. The world put on blinkered, short-sighted-vision goggles and got comfy with convenience. Now it’s become almost easier to imagine the end of the world than a world without plastic! 

Around the 1960s, disposable menstrual product designers jumped aboard the fast-moving plastic train. Pads with a plastic, leak-proof outer layer and flexible wings with sticky adhesives (made with polyethylene), tampons wrapped in plastic with, plastic application, even with plastic absorbent parts and strings made, in part, of plastic. Plastic became well and truly pervasive in period products and continues to be over half a century on, despite the fact that we know full-well how bad that is for the planet and our bodies.  

The reasons behind the use of plastic for period products are multiple, but, in large part, it stems from the perceived need to make periods as hidden and invisible as possible due to deeply entrenched cultural and social ideas that this entirely natural and healthy process is shameful and disgusting. Also, period products have historically often been designed by males.

Putting plastic in a single-use product that is used on such a gigantic scale quite frankly does not make sense. Around 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels and have enormous emissions associated with their production, transportation and disposal. By 2050, Client Earth estimate that emissions caused from plastic production could be equal to 615 coal-fired power stations.

And, without meaning to fear-monger but just in case these drastic, detrimental environmental impacts of plastic period products weren’t enough to cause you some degree of concern, there are also a bunch of detrimental physical-bodily-health impacts that come along with conventional disposable period products too. Plastics (as well as a whole host of other unregulated chemicals that are often thrown in to them such as bleach, dioxins, furans, pesticide and herbicide residues, BPA, adhesives and synthetic fragrances) also contain endocrine disrupting chemicals that can mimic our hormones. That means “period-havers” are potentially being exposed, tens-of-thousands of times, to a range of toxic chemicals in one of the most sensitive and absorbent parts of the body. Hmmm…

According to a study done by Natra Care, the average conventional pack of disposable period pads contains the equivalent of five plastic carrier bags. Meanwhile, data from the Institution of Environmental Sciences indicates that around 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million pads are flushed down the toilet every single day in the UK and as many as 100 billion period products are thrown away each year globally. This would be enough to encircle the planet 250 times. The Women’s Environmenstrual Network (WEN) also estimate that there are around nine plastic applicators and 23 sanitary pads for every one kilometre of UK coastline – that means that they’re more commonly found than single-use cutlery and coffee cups.

However, the good news is… 

Despite the dearth in research surrounding menstruation along with the stigmas and taboos that still shroud the subject, progress is certainly being made, as awareness of the environmental implications of commonly used period products is increasing and conversations about periods are becoming more commonplace.

There seems to be a new eco-friendly period product on the market about every fortnight and most of them created by people who actually get periods themselves! There are reusable pads, reusable tampon applicators, menstrual cups and disks, biodegradable tampons and period pants. People can now use different sustainable alternatives for different times in their cycle, according to their personal preferences, disabilities or illnesses which might limit the types of products they can or prefer to use.  

The way to go appears to be to gradually build up a “period wardrobe” so you’ve got options and can switch things up depending on what’s going on for you. A “period wardrobe” seems very sensible really considering how much of your life you will spend bleeding if you have one.  

You do have to be mindful however that some products touted as eco-friendly, organic and biodegradable are still single-use so they still require water and energy supplies to be constantly produced and it is important to bear in mind the emissions from the extraction, manufacturing and disposal phases of these products still. Also, when biodegradable stuff gets sent to landfills, the anaerobic environment causes it to produce methane which, over a twenty-year time frame can be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Although some landfills convert gas into energy, many still don’t. Getting biodegradable products into the right composting facilities is the key to making them worth using. 

On the reusable pad and pants front, you’ve got to keep an eye out for what fabrics the pads and pants are made from, as you will be washing them a lot and so don’t want to be leaching tiny threads of plastic fibres or chemical dyes into the water system. And although they are designed to last, they will eventually reach the end of their lives so it’s still crucial to think about their disposal. Textiles like polyester, spandex and nylon can take anywhere between 20 to 200 years to biodegrade and when they do they don’t break down into particles that are beneficial to the environment. In the UK alone, around 350,000 tonnes of non-biodegradable clothing makes its way to the landfill each year.

Yes, the battle against climate change can be extremely anxiety-inducing and seem completely overwhelming and yes, the large part of the responsibility does fall on a handful of big businesses and corporations, but there is still so much that each and every one of us can do on a small, individual scale, that when multiplied, really can make an enormous difference.

It’s time we really made the effort to change our behaviours, drive demand for sustainable and ethical alternatives and rethink the way we design, produce, use and dispose of our products.