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) on the problem and solutions.
  15 Oct 2018    |      7 min

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 of course those candy coloured plastic applicators.

And what about the plastic packaging? The rest of a pad is wood pulp and tampons are a mix of cotton and rayon or a mix of both. Plastic tampon applicators are made from polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

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 cause sewer blockages. Worse, many 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 in to 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);
  • and 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, lubricants, and 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 deodorising.

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 up of a cocktail of up to 3,000 chemicals [PDF] and 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 Lilets, and don't offer a balanced education.

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 the 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 and period underwear is another option.

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

Graphic showing reusable menstrual products
Reusable menstrual products
Credit: WEN

Be a period activist

You can help WEN champion healthy, eco-friendly menstrual products by joining its #PeriodsWithoutPlastic campaign.

Whether you have an impromptu coffee morning at work, fancy hosting a menstrual pad-making workshop or a quiz night, Women's Environmental Network has all the resources and ideas in our #PeriodAction toolkit [PDF]. We even have letter templates and sample tweets to demand that manufacturers and supermarkets ditch the plastic.

3 women around a table making plastic-free sanitary products
WEN plastic-free workshops
Credit: WEN

Heidi Ringshaw is communications coordinator at Women's Environmental Network. WEN has been campaigning on environmenstrual issues for more than 20 years – providing girls, women and people who menstruate with information on the health and the environmental impacts.

Please add your name to the clamour for government and businesses to do more to stem the tide of plastics choking our seas.