Woman's two hands, one holding a tampon and the other a sanitary towel.

Plastic periods: menstrual products and plastic pollution

Most menstrual products contain plastics - and we don't dispose of them properly. Heidi Ringshaw of Women's Environmental Network (WEN) talks about the problem and solutions.
  Published:  15 Oct 2018    |      6 minute read

Menstruation is one of the most natural and healthy parts of life. In fact in many cultures the first period is celebrated. But menstrual taboos and period shaming have a massive impact on the products we use and how we dispose of them. With the result that they can affect our health, and end up in landfill, on beaches or polluting our oceans for decades.

What’s in my pad?

Did you know that conventional menstrual pads can contain up to 90% plastic? Tampons have plastic in them too – even in the string – and plastic applicators are made from polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

The rest of a pad is made from wood pulp, and tampons are cotton, rayon, or a combination.

graphic explaining plastic content of a sanitary pad and a tampon
Credit: WEN

Despite the whiter-than-white appearance, and the fact that pads and tampons come individually wrapped, menstrual products are not sterile. They're not classified as medical devices in the UK – so all that plastic packaging is wasteful.

We hear a lot about single-use plastic – straws, plastic bottles, coffee cups and the list goes on. But throw-away menstrual products are adding to the plastic epidemic, made worse by incorrect disposal.

A year’s worth of a typical menstrual product leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalent.

Are you a flusher or a binner?

Flushing pads and tampons down the toilet causes sewer blockages. Worse, many pads and tampons end up in the sea and washed up on beaches. It has been estimated that 1.5‐2 billion menstrual items are flushed down Britain’s toilets [PDF] each year. The great majority of these products end up incinerated or in landfill.

Figures from the Marine Conservation Society reveal that on average, 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste are found per 100 metres of beach cleaned. For every 100m of beach, that amounts to 4 pads, panty-liners and backing strips, along with at least one tampon and applicator.

Not really the bucket-and-spade family beach holiday one would hope for.

Microplastics

And of course plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are defined as pieces smaller than 5 milimetres. Microplastics found on our beaches and in the ocean come from 2 sources:

  • those intentionally added to consumer products like cosmetics (primary microplastics);
  • those that originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items in the ocean or from washing of synthetic fabrics (secondary microplastics).

The average person who menstruates throws away up to 200 kg of menstrual products in their lifetime.

Paint stripper?

But that’s not the half of it. A recent study from the US found that non-organic rayon-based tampons contained some pretty nasty chemicals – paint stripper to name just one.

Then there’s the chemical absorbers, fillers and lubricants, plus chemical and pesticide residues from the bleaching of cotton and the manufacturing process.

There is very little public information on what's in our menstrual products and even less transparency about additives. This may be because the menstrual products industry basically polices itself.

The sweet smell of chemicals

Walk down any supermarket aisle for feminine care and you'll find hundreds of products aimed at freshening and deodourising.

No other product used to soak up blood has added fragrance, so why just menstrual products? How does this make girls, women and people who menstruate feel about themselves and their bodies?

Synthetic fragrances can be made from a cocktail of up to 3,900 chemicals, according to the Chem Fatale report [PDF]. These can contain chemicals which are carcinogens, allergens, irritants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

EDCs in particular are a worry [PDF] as they are linked, not only to breast cancer and infertility, but to many other reproductive diseases and disorders such as endometriosis.

Did you talk to your dad about periods?

That was a twitter discussion recently. And this is the point – periods aren’t your usual dinner party conversation. For many they're not even spoken about within the family.

Not talking about periods means it’s difficult to discuss all the issues openly and honestly. Even at schools the conversation is not quite as transparent as it could be.

Women's Environmental Network (WEN) has been contacted by parents concerned that menstrual education is being led by the major manufacturers, like Tampax and Lil-lets, and as a result isn't presented in a balanced way.

Viva #PeriodsWithoutPlastic

Reusable menstrual products have been around for decades, but they've been left in the shadows by their plastic disposable counterparts. This isn't surprising when it’s the big consumer conglomerates that have huge marketing budgets to push their wares.

The fact that the cheapest options are often those with the most potential to damage our health and the planet makes this a social and environmental justice issue: people with the least power have the greatest exposure to dangerous products.

What are your options?

Menstrual cups are not only eco-friendly but can be a real money saver too. Yes, there is an upfront cost, which could be a barrier for many – but the savings over 10 years are significant.

Of course, this isn’t right for everyone – so washable pads or period underwear are other options.

For some, though, tampons and disposable pads are preferable - and that’s where organic and plastic-free options come into play. These have no plastic, aren’t bleached, have no nasties and are biodegradable.

Graphic showing reusable menstrual products
Reusable menstrual products
Credit: WEN

Try #PeriodswithoutPlastic

Get tips and discounts on the menstrual products mentioned here, courtesy of the Women's Environmental Network, and enjoy #PeriodswithoutPlastic.

Please ask the government to take tough action to stop the tide of plastics choking our seas.