Features Deputy Editor, Alexandra Baff, explores the amount of plastic waste and pollution produced by menstrual products. She looks at how disposable products can add up each month, and how one can avoid the waste by using sustainable, reusable products instead.
For those of us who menstruate every month, deciding what period products to purchase is a no-brainer. You pop into your local Boots or supermarket and pick up the cheapest pack of pads or tampons that you see, head to the till, and once the product has been used, bin it. But in our environmentally conscious society, it is becoming apparent that our monthly bleed is having disastrous consequences on the planet, and one that could easily be avoided.
Pads contain polyethylene plastic (which takes between 500 and 800 years to decompose) and tampons contain a range of chemicals including dioxin and rayon. Once disposed of, these substances, which are found in the 11,000 pads and tampons a person throws away in their lifetime, are soaked up by the earth and released as pollution. When you do the maths, it will not be a surprise that sanitary products are now the fifth most common item found on Europe’s beaches. You need only take a walk along West Sands and you are sure to come across one or two, despite the town’s best efforts to keep the beaches clean.
When you stop to consider the fact that your insignificant period product will still exist long after you and your grandchildren have died, it highlights just how damaging our reliance on disposable products has become. We are so focused on cutting down on plastic packaging and plastic bags that we forget about one of the biggest aspects of our lives and the devastating impact that it can have on the world.
So, what can we do to stop this endless cycle of period to landfill? And what kind of impact will it have on our wallets?
Our first option is a menstrual cup. These cups have become increasingly popular over the years with brands such as Organicup, Eden and Eco Period popping up and offering us an almost waste-free period. Organicup’s menstrual cup lasts for up to two years, doing the job of 528 pads for 0.4% of the plastic waste. These cups are inserted into the vagina and, consequently, can take a while to adjust to. However, once you are used to the insertion, the cups are easy to use and will save you money on disposable products every month. These cups are said to be safer than tampons as they are not associated with toxic shock syndrome and consequently can be worn for up to twelve hours at a time.
However, if you do not like the concept of a menstrual cup, then there is always the option of reusable pads. These are often made of cotton and can be used in exactly the same way as normal pads, except that rather than throwing them away, you throw them in the washing machine. These reusable pads can last up to five years if they are cared for well and produce considerably less waste, compared to their disposable counterparts. There are several online shops which sell these items and they can also be found for an inexpensive price on Amazon and eBay.
However, these pads need to be cared for well. They need to be properly washed, dried and stored after each use or you risk developing a vaginal infection through the growth of bacteria on the pad – not ideal when you are a busy student.
These reduced waste period products are not for everyone, and that is fine. There are many other ways that we can reduce our impact on the environment, whether that is through our period products, how much meat we consume, or using public transport, it is all up to the individual. However, there are other ways of reducing period waste and one of them is as simple as making the change from plastic applicator tampons to non-applicator tampons. This simple change removes the unnecessary plastic that is just thrown away seconds after the packet is opened – every little action makes a difference.
Or you can purchase a reusable tampon applicator. DAME, a company well-known for its environmentally friendly products, has a reusable applicator that you can buy online, or in Boots, that saves up to 12,000 disposable plastic applicators. It also has a 70% smaller emissions footprint than disposable applicators. This small change to your daily life can clearly vastly improve the amount of waste that your period produces each month and it is a change that will not have that big an impact on how you insert your tampon.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to reusable period products, in particular reusable pads. Many people still believe them to be dirty and unhygienic, but the truth is that if they are well-cleaned then they are just as hygienic as disposable pads. This misinformation can be remedied with education on the matter and work on breaking down the stigma around periods in general. Recalling my own sexual health and body education classes in school, I remember being taught for eight years in a row what a period was (by that point I had received the message loud and clear) and what my choice of period product was, but never was I informed about reusable period products, or where I could purchase them.
The other factor that puts many people off buying reusable period products is how expensive they can be. Whilst reusable pads can be found online for relatively cheap (£10 for a pack of five) a pack of disposable pads can contain up to fifteen pads and cost just a few pounds. For a person who cannot afford to spend more on fewer products, this is a real problem and can result in a person feeling guilty about their inability to have a sustainable period. Menstrual cups are even more expensive, and whilst they certainly save you money in the long run, £20 for one product is a significant amount of money. When one in five people in Scotland cannot afford to buy even basic period products, this gives a whole new meaning to the term “period poverty” in our environmentally conscious world.
For students in particular, it is difficult to justify paying £20 for a single product when that kind of money can buy your food shopping for the week. Students and other people on low-incomes should not have to choose between helping the planet and their need to eat or pay rent. It is a problem that I had never really thought much about until I began to consider buying some reusable products of my own and realised that for the same amount of money, I could book a train ticket home to visit family and have money left over to buy a sandwich for the journey.
However, help is available. In 2018, the Scottish Government made access to period products free for students in schools, colleges, and universities across the country. The move was hailed as a world first and has benefited many students since it was introduced. The scheme has been extremely successful, but it has highlighted areas for improvement, such as increasing access to reusable period products, and providing a wider range of products.
Now, Fife Council is not just offering free period products to its residents, but free reusable products!
These products can be ordered online and will be delivered to your home address, at no extra cost to you. All you need to do is go to Fife Council’s website or Facebook page, choose whether you would like a menstrual cup, a set of reusable day or night pads, or a set of period pants. Not only does this help the environment, but it also helps out those who would otherwise struggle to afford to have an environmentally friendly period. The products can take over a week to arrive (the service is in high demand at the moment, understandably) but it is worth the wait considering that these products will last for years.
This move by Fife Council is just one of many in the right direction (for both the environment and period poverty) and is one that anyone who needs it should definitely take advantage of, as it is the perfect opportunity to make a small change that will have a massive impact on our planet, for the better.