It is the unfortunate truth that plastic is a dominant force in modern society, even though trends are changing towards sustainable products. Some habits--especially ones that we've grown up with--die hard, and a majority of menstruating people still use disposable tampons and pads, even though they're aware of more environmentally sustainable options. But of course, we should not make a habit of blaming the consumer for using the products most advertised and made readily available to them. Instead, we are going to focus on how plastic became so heavily incorporated into menstrual products, how that has impacted the environment, and alternatives menstrual products that the consumer can pursue.
*WASTE STATISTICS *
Did you know that in the US alone, about 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are thrown away every year? That amounts to billions of pounds of waste in landfills and oceans, with the Marine Conservation Society reporting that there are 4.8 pieces of menstrual product found per 100 metres of beach cleaned.
Even though the disposal of these products has a negative environmental impact, it is actually the processing of raw materials during their production that is the most detrimental. For starters, the cotton needed for tampons requires an enormous amount of water to produce, and the plastics used in the pads and tampon are a low-density polyethylene that is formed through an energy-intensive process. The fossil fuels used to produce these pads and tampons successfully create plastic coated disposable products that will, wherever they end up, outlive their user.
HISTORY OF DISPOSABLE MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS
Tampons were not invented until 1921 (and not patented until 1933), and were made from Cellucotton, a hyper-absorbent plant based product used for bandaging wounds during World War 1. Before then, menstruating people had to use whatever linen or excess fabric they could find to use as pads. But, noticing their absorption capabilities, nurses started using the Cellucotton material as pads; thus menstrual products were born.
So where (and why) does the plastic come in? Despite the ability to directly insert a tampon with your hand, doctors and members of the public were originally put off by the idea of women coming into contact with their genitals during insertion. To coddle the fragility of the public, inventors designed the plastic applicator we know so well today in order for women to insert the product "more demurely." The original telescoping applicator was made of cardboard, though there were pitches to make it out of stainless steel and even glass. However, by the 1970s, the era of the thin, flexible plastic applicator was ushered in.
Pads, on the other hand, started incorporating plastic in the 1960s, but not just for packaging. Pad manufacturers began including a thin, flexible, leak-proof plastic as the base, or foundation, of the pad. From there, the discovery of adhesive plastics bred the design for pads sticking directly to the underwear. Before this, pads used to be held in place by menstrual belts: a suspender type system worn under your underwear that would attach to the pad and hold it in place. So you can understand why sticky pads were a game changer. Their design only improved, adding the plastic adhesive "wings" that curl around the underwear and keep it totally secure during movement. Plastics then became even more integral to the pad's design, with scientists weaving polyester fibers through the cotton to wick moisture from the absorbent middle.
And as if the actual menstrual product (pads and tampons) weren't wasteful enough, they are all individually wrapped in plastic instead of existing loose within their box. This is, again, because of the taboo and culture of shame around menstruation. So, the solution was to create discreet packaging that would allow for easy transportation of the product from desk, to bathroom, and to trash can, without other people realizing you were going to take care of your period.
Never fear, alternative sustainable options are here! If you've decided that you want to be part of the solution, hooray! Here are some menstrual products that are reusable and environmentally conscious:
Reusable menstrual cups are the most sustainable menstrual product on the market. Whereas a menstruating person will use and discard over 9000 tampons in their life, one menstrual cup can last up to 30 years. Menstrual cups are bell shaped receptacles that are inserted into the vaginal canal and collect blood. At the end of the day, the user simply removes it, rinses it with water and soap, and puts it back in its container until the next use (if last use of the cycle, then the user would do a deep-clean in boiling water). There are many different brands and options for reusable menstrual cups, so finding one that fits your price range and size is very easy and accessible! Menstrual cups also have the highest conversion rate over other reusable products. A conducted survey had women use tampons and then menstrual cups for the first time, and found that, after trying them, 91% of the women would switch to permanently using menstrual cups for their periods.
Reusable pads are the alternative to disposable pads, and a good option for people who aren't comfortable (or able to) insert something into their vaginal canal. Costing between $12-15 and lasting for up to five years. Simply buy a pack, use, and throw in the washing machine.
A third option is using reusable period underwear that is designed for you to free bleed into. This thoughtful product wicks away blood and moisture without leaking through, so you can go product-less all day without worry. A pair usually runs for about $30, and most companies donate money and/or products to developing countries in need of menstrual care. These panties typically last for two years.
For too long the world has championed convenience over conscientiousness. The immense waste created by companies seeking capitalistic gain has tipped the balance of what our Earth can withstand, and threatens the health and livelihood of all its inhabitants (who aren't rich and white). Though we as consumers have been raised on the idea of disposable tampons and pads, the era we live in of digital information dissemination allows us to make sustainable and proactive decisions with our money. If you want to help combat waste production, switching to alternative menstrual products is easy and affordable.