The Environmental Impact of Menstrual Products

Did you know that the most commonly used menstrual products – pads and tampons – are also the most detrimental to our natural environment? According to the European Commission, menstrual products are the fifth most found plastic polluters found in the ocean. It’s not only their plastic packaging that is worrisome, it’s also the products themselves.

Conventional pads and tampons are synthetics soaked in bleach, super absorbent acrylic polymers (SAPs), dioxins, furans, adhesives and fragrances, as well as other toxic elements that cause harm both to your body and the environment.

But big branded multinational corporations offering pads and tampons aren’t required by law to disclose the ingredients used in the products they sell. That’s why they don’t include them on the packaging. You must visit their website and read about a few ingredients they’ve decided to include on the list after a surge of public pressure. Concealing the truth for profit on the account of women’s health is an unethical way of doing business, wouldn’t you say? Hopefully, that is soon going to change.

So, what happens after we dispose of menstrual products?

1 – PLASTIC GETS BURIED IN THE LANDFILL

A menstruator (if we include transgender men who might also menstruate) throws away anywhere between 5.000 and 16.000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime, some 11.000 on average. Each of those products is almost pure plastic – wrapped in plastic, encased in plastic applicators, with plastic strings dangling away, plastics in the absorbent part and leak-proof base… The vast majority of these products then winds up in landfills as plastic waste, where they leach onto the ground or surrounding material due to exposure to heat, or get ingested by scavenging animals.

Because much of the plastic used in disposable pads and tampons is polyethylene, most microorganisms don’t recognize this material as food, so they don’t decompose it. Polyethylene can break down into smaller pieces as a result of photodegradation, but once the material is buried in landfill, there is very little light available for this to occur. 

Once in a landfill, it may take up to 500 years to decompose, and potentially leak pollutants into soil and water. It’s estimated that there are already 165 million tons of plastic debris floating around in the oceans threatening the health and safety of marine life. And an average of 8.8 million more tons enter the oceans each year…

2 – DISPOSABLES FLOAT IN THE OCEAN & ADORN OUR BEACHES

The disposables that don’t make it to landfill often end up in the oceans or get washed up on our beaches, where they create a different problem. Plastic tampon applicators are commonly found on beaches and even inside the stomachs of fish and seabirds.

During a beach cleans in the UK in 2017, the Marine Conservation Society reported an increase in sanitary products, including menstrual products and wet wipes.

Nine plastic applicators were found per km on UK beaches.

Birds are starving to death having their stomachs filled with plastics, without any room for food. What happens is that birds head to sea in search for small fish and squid to feed their chicks. Finding predominantly plastic particles, they unwittingly feed these to their chicks, who then emerge from their burrows with stomachs filled with plastic waste, and with insufficient nutrition to enable them to set out to sea and forage for themselves.

Marine biologists report pulling 200-250 pieces of plastic out of dead birds, or by provoking regurgitation to empty the birds’ stomachs. Issues with “most of the plastic they find in their work with the birds is entirely preventable“, they say.

3 – MICRO & NANOPLASTICS

Plastic applicators and other menstrual products that contain plastic play a part in yet another set of problems. With the presence of light these slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. Microplastics are small but very pervasive bits of plastic less than 5 mm in size. They are found everywhere from marine environments to the highest alpine mountains, and pose a serious threat to ecosystems by disrupting reproductive systems of aquatic creatures, turtles and birds, stunt their growth, diminish appetite, cause tissue inflammation and liver damage, and alter feeding behaviour. Having been found in the fish we eat, drinking water, salt and soil, microplastics carry consequences for human health too. Some microplastics are so tiny they are part of the dust that blows around the planet, high in the atmosphere.

Research has shown that not only can plastics be ingested, they can also be absorbed into the bodies of algal cells if they break down further into nanoplastics. Once nanoplastics enter the food chain at these lower trophic levels, bioaccumulation occurs, with levels building as we go up the food chain, reaching harmful concentrations for those organisms, and eventually, for us.

“I don’t want to contribute 40 years of garbage to a landfill just to manage something that shouldn’t even be seen as a problem. I don’t want to have that kind of burden on the planet.”

Ann Borowski

Is there a better way?

Yes, and it’s so easy! We don’t have to shift all aspects of our lives one day to another. Indeed major changes take time and require adaptation. But if we start with a simple step and replace our disposable menstrual products with a reusable alternative, that already takes a considerable burden from our environment. It’s an easy and long overdue step we ought to take if we want to bend the climate change curve and do what we can as individuals for our planet. And if that step simultaneously protects our health and saves us money, is there really much to think about?

Shifting to less wasteful, sustainable options such as a menstrual cup, we free our environments of thousands of disposables and kilos of plastic waste.

With a simple step – minding our menstruation – we drastically decrease our contribution to contamination.

It only takes one purchase, then you can forget about it for years, meanwhile your impact keeps echoing.

Pure menstrual cup is made of 100% medical silicone. It has been tested and is CE approved, which makes it safe to use within the European market, being compliant with the highest European standards. It is very easy to maintain and comes conveniently stored in a cotton bag and a box. A cup will last you up to 10 years, all you need to do is return the care she gives to you. Pure menstrual cup makes menstruating days even enjoyable, providing you with a high level of comfort and giving you space to focus on the way you feel, and taking good care of yourself.

References

Borunda, A., 2019. How tampons and pads became unsustainable and filled with plastic. Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic [Accessed 8 March 2021].

Cho, R., 2012. What Happens to All That Plastic?. State of the Planet. Available at: https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/31/what-happens-to-all-that-plastic/ [Accessed 8 March 2021].

Gill, V., 2018. Marine plastic: Hundreds of fragments in dead seabirds. [online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44579422 [Accessed 4 March 2021].

Parker, L., 2020. Microplastics have moved into virtually every crevice on Earth. National Geographic. Science, News. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/microplastics-in-virtually-every-crevice-on-earth [Accessed 4 March 2021].

Peberdy, E., Jones, A. and Green, D., 2019. A Study into Public Awareness of the Environmental Impact of Menstrual Products and Product Choice. Sustainability, 11(2), p.473.

Royte, E., 2018. We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?. National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/plastic-planet-health-pollution-waste-microplastics [Accessed 4 March 2021].