What are the sustainable alternatives to disposable period products?
There have been increasing discussions over the amount of non-recyclable waste generated in the bathroom. Recent research found that the UK recycles 90 per cent of kitchen packaging but only 50 per cent of bathroom waste.
Cosmetics and beauty products have also come under environmental scrutiny in recent years, with former Environment Secretary Michael Gove introducing a UK ban on microbeads in wash-off cosmetics products at the start of 2018 in one of his first acts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The ‘feminine hygiene’ industry is a huge market (estimated to be worth $33.78 billion or £27.72 billion by 2025), with over 2.5 billion period products being purchased across the UK each year.
Most period products contain large amounts of plastic – typically polyolefin, polyethylene and polypropylene – with one sanitary towel containing the equivalent of five plastic carrier bags. These items frequently find their way onto beaches and into the oceans, with the European Commission finding that menstrual products are the fifth most common type of single-use plastic waste washed up on beaches.
For many, it comes down to not knowing what these products are comprised of. A survey by Keep it Clear revealed that 41 per cent of interviewees flush tampons down the toilet without realising they don’t break down and biodegrade like toilet roll.
As well as having a negative impact on the marine environment, flushing period products down the toilet also causes great damage to the pipe systems and waterways and costs UK water companies millions of pounds every year.
Wessex Water, based in the South West, deals with 13,000 blockages across its network each year, costing £5 million – it estimates that 75 per cent of these blockages involve disposable items. Though wet wipes are the main culprit, sanitary products also contribute.
Perhaps most worryingly, some period products have also previously been found to contain traces of harmful carcinogenic and irritant chemicals, such as chloroform, acetone and glyphosate (an active ingredient in some weed killers) – harmful to both humans and the natural environment.
Periods aren’t going anywhere, so surely it’s time to make managing them more environmentally sustainable?
What are the alternatives?
In 2018, The Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) coined the term ‘environmenstrual’, which has grown into a national campaign all about “connecting menstruation, health and the environment and no more taboo – for people, periods and the planet!” says Natasha Piette-Basheer, WEN’s Environmenstrual Campaign Manager.
“The term offers a framework to explore the intersectional issues surrounding menstruation, including the harmful ecological and health effects of mainstream disposable menstrual products, many of which contain single-use plastic.”
To reduce the amount of plastic waste, alternative menstrual solutions are becoming more widely available and affordable. With increased concern over plastic waste and a drive towardsreusable products rather than disposable, there are more options than ever before when it comes to handling periods in an environmentally sustainable way that is still convenient.
Plastic-free pads and tampons
For those who still prefer using disposable items – which are often less messy than reusable ones and require less preparation or maintenance – there are a number of plastic-free and organic pads and tampons available. These are generally made of cotton and natural fibres, and the products themselves can be composted at home. Brands such as Natracare also use cardboard applicators, rather than plastic ones. Reusable tampon applicators from companies such as Dame are also available.
Reusable pads, such as those by Cheekywipes, ImseVimse, and Earthwise Girls, are made of absorbent fabric and can be rinsed then put in the washing machine after use. Rather than sticking to underwear with plastic backings, they usually use popper fastenings and come in a variety of patterns and designs as well as different absorbencies for light, medium and heavy flow days.
Brands such as Thinx have developed ‘period pants’ – absorbent underwear worn like normal knickers. These are made from multiple layers that hold the menstrual blood and vary in absorbency – Wuka’s heavy flow pants are designed to retain up to four tampons-worth of blood. Similarly to reusable pads, these can be put in the washing machine after use.
Made of flexible, medical-grade silicone, menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina. Brands like Mooncup and Lunette offer different sizes to suit women of all ages and childbearing histories. Rather than absorbing blood like tampons, menstrual cups catch it and can then be emptied down the toilet. They can be an affordable and sustainable plastic-free option and can be left in much longer than tampons. With correct care and maintenance they can last up to two years. Menstrual cups are becoming more popular, with the market for these products expanding at five per cent per year, according to WEN.
An option that may not be for everyone, but certainly reduces plastic usage – free-bleeding is where no products are used to absorb or collect menstrual blood. The free-bleeding movement has been more of a political statement, with campaigners highlighting that menstruation is a normal part of human life and shouldn’t be seen as disgusting or dirty.
For those who want to make the switch to eco-friendly products, or have tried disposable tampons or pads that don’t work for them and have a lot left over, charities such as The Red Box Project, a community project tackling period poverty, collect boxes of sanitary products and donate them to schools and colleges for those who may not be able to afford them.
As one of the most ubiquitous single-use items, the environmental impact of which is compounded by the way they are often incorrectly flushed down the toilet into the sewer system and environment, making menstrual products more sustainable will be essential in the fight against plastic pollution.
Change is happening, with focus on plastic waste seemingly having an effect on retailers. The Women’s Environmental Network said: “We hope to see a commitment to concrete action on removing plastic from the products leading menstrual product manufacturers have on the market. We are seeing promising changes in a few UK supermarkets, with the introduction of plastic-free options becoming available on their aisle shelves. However, these will still sit on shelves alongside their plastic-ridden counterparts. The big brands will have to adapt to the marketchanges to manufacturing processes and consumer demands around plastic concerns, or they will risk losing their customers.”
You can learn more about the Environmenstrual campaign on the Women’s Environmental Network’s website.