I don’t know about you, but the thing that really ruins an adventure for me is the sight of plastic litter in places that it really shouldn’t be. There are an estimated 2 billion menstruating humans on the planet today, and collectively we are responsible for dumping over 12 billion disposable sanitary pads and 7 billion tampons into landfills and sewage treatment plants each and every year – a huge number of which then get washed up on our beaches. By 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Like in many other aspects of our lives, this single-use, throwaway menstrual product culture is simply not sustainable; but are we as menstruating humans willing to do anything about it?
‘By 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.’
The growing environmental concerns of recent decades have prompted a huge shift towards the development of more biodegradable and sustainable products from clothes to food to cleaning products. We are starting to hear (most!) politicians pledge to take a stance on climate change in their manifestos and are starting to see some of these promises turned into laws.For example, the UK government recently introduced a 5p plastic carrier bag charge which has reduced usage by 85% since it came into effect in October 2015. What’s interesting is that a single disposable sanitary pad can actually contain as much plastic as 4 of these carrier bags – all of which is going to stick around on our planet for another 800 years or so before it starts to degrade. Add to this an unnecessary amount of plastic pad wrappers, packaging and plastic tampon applicators (what was wrong with cardboard?!) and the amount of non-biodegradable landfill-bound waste we produce each month really starts to add up.
‘A single disposable sanitary bag can have up to 4 plastic carrier bag’s worth of plastic in it!’
We should also consider the impact of the manufacturing processes of these products on not only the environment, but our bodies as well. Tampon manufacturing companies are not required by law to disclose the processes they use or the contents of the tampon itself, and there are many concerns about the use of chemicals (and their byproducts such as dioxin) in the production of Rayon (a synthetic and highly absorbent fibre used in most tampons and pads), and the pesticides and bleaches used the produce ‘safe’ cotton. Despite the FDA’s insistence that they review all industry-supplied data on the design and materials of all commercially available tampons, the introduction of legislation to conduct and disclose research into the composition of sanitary products has repeatedly been blocked by the US House of Representatives. Do we really want to be putting something that we quite frankly know nothing about in or next to one of the most sensitive parts of our bodies?
What can we do about all this?
It’s important to note that for some women disposable pads and tampons may be the only option they have for managing their periods. Period poverty both in the UK and abroad is a very real thing and many women and girls struggle to pay for basic sanitary products on a monthly basis which can result in them missing up to a week of school or work. As more sustainable menstrual products tend to require an initial investment (the upfront cost does mean you’ll save money in the long term though), they simply aren’t an option for everyone. If you can however afford to invest in making your period a little more sustainable, here are our top tips for reducing the environmental impact of mother nature’s monthly gift, both at home and on an adventure:
Switch to biodegradable or organic tampons and/or pads. This is probably the easiest and most convenient change you can make – simply switch from commercial brands to organic ones, reducing the chemical footprint of the product. No faffing about with learning how to use a new product, no upfront investment and some companies will even post a customisable box of supplies to you in the days before your period starts so you’ll never be caught short!
Try using a menstrual cup. For some reason these great little flexible cups are perceived as being only for hard-core environmentalists. Despite it being a little tricky to position the cup correctly at first (they sit much lower down in the vagina than tampons do), it’s well worth the perseverance. It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike: one day it’ll just work and you’ll wonder what you did before without it! You simply fold the cup in half to insert it, then once it’s in, it pops open and forms a seal with the inside walls of your vagina, stopping anything from coming out! To empty the cup, simply squeeze the base slightly (which will break the seal) and gently pull it out before tipping the contents down the loo and giving it a quick rinse or wipe. Menstrual cups tend to be made from medical grade silicon or TPE which means that you can leave them in for up to 12 hours on lighter days (great for on long adventures when there are no toilets around) and there’s no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome as they collect rather than absorb blood. If you take good care of the cup and boil it after each period (to kill any bacteria), it can last for up to 10 years which makes it well worth the initial £15 – £20 investment (and many companies offer a money back guarantee if you just can’t get on with it).
Go old school with some reusable cloth pads. These soft, super absorbent cotton pads come in various shapes, sizes and designs, and cause no skin irritation from synthetic fibres like disposable pads can. They have a popper fastening to keep them in place, and you can also buy extra inserts to ‘build your own thickness’ for use on heavier days. The one major downside to reusable pads is what to do with used ones, especially when you’re out and about – carrying around used pads in your bag all day is probably not ideal! They also need to be hand-rinsed and line dried which can be a little messy and time consuming, but potentially worth it in terms of reducing your period costs (average woman spends £5 a month on disposable products which adds up to £60 a year and £2400 over her lifetime), and environmental impact.
Invest in some period proof underwear. Yes we know it seems too good to be true – normal underwear made from high tech, moisture wicking, absorbent, anti-microbial and leak-proof technology which can hold up to 2 regular tampons worth of blood?! Where have these been all our lives?! Period pants are perfect for using on unpredictable pre and post period days, on lighter days, or in place of a pantyliner on heavy days. They have incredible reviews and the main companies dominating the market right now also have incredibly ethical values – donating a portion of their profits to charities providing reusable pads to women in poverty all over the world. The only downside is that at around £30 a pair (and you’ll need a few), it works out as pretty expensive.
Try sea sponges – yes really! These sustainably harvested natural sponges are incredibly absorbent and have been used as a kind of reusable tampon for centuries. They come in a variety of sizes and are more comfortable than standard tampons as they’re much softer. Again, the main downside to these is the fact that they’re almost impossible to use in a public bathroom as you’ll get messy removing them and squeezing/ washing them out.
Lastly, if you do decide to make a sustainable change to your period by buying new products or you find that your cycle varies over time and you have some tampons/pads that are now the wrong size, don’t forget to donate any unused products to food banks or homeless shelters instead of just throwing them away!
Featured image courtesy of Cal Major (http://paddleagainstplastic.com)