The Problem with Period Products and Sustainable Alternatives
BY SABINA GRIEBEL
This article provides both a brief overview of the history of menstrual hygiene products, their effects on climate change, and the pros and cons of sustainable alternatives today.
Menstruation, also known as a period, is the usually-monthly discharge of blood and tissue from the vagina. Most people begin their periods between eleven and fourteen, and stop at menopause between forty-five and fifty-five. With the average woman having 456 periods over the course of her lifetime, as in 6.25 years, and an average period shedding 30-40ml of blood, there is an obvious need for reusable menstrual hygiene products.
Menstrual hygiene products have changed significantly over the period of human history. For most of history, women used homemade products such as papyrus, moss, and wool. The 1880s brought the first disposable sanitary napkin, and the self-adhesive pads and tampons we know today came about in the 1960s.
The average tampon-user disposes of 11,000 over the course of their lifetime. In general, the amount of pads and tampons women use over their life is 250-300 pounds of trash; or, 0.5% of a woman’s total trash load. The plastic in pads and tampons contributes to garbage in landfills and increases pollution, as it takes between 500-800 years for pads to decompose.
Not only is the difficulty in disposal worrisome, but the manufacturing of tampons and pads is extremely taxing on the environment. Companies are not required to disclose the ingredients of menstrual hygiene products, creating a worryingly opaque process. The cotton in pads and tampons is usually grown using pesticides. Pesticides, along with all other agricultural activities, make up approximately 30% of global emissions from agricultural activities, contributing significantly to global warming.
There are health concerns related to disposable pads and tampons as well. Dioxin, a carcinogen and hormone disruptor, is found in these products, although at safe levels according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The pesticides used for cotton growing have been occasionally linked to various health consequences, including infertility and neurological problems. Disposable period products can also cause irritation, yeast infections, and Toxic Shock Syndrome, which can be fatal within hours.
Recent years, amidst the ever-escalating climate crisis, have brought about a resurgence of reusable and more sustainable menstrual products. Menstrual cups are a rubber or silicone cup that, once inserted into the vagina, collect period discharge. The cup is emptied, washed, cleaned, and re-inserted. They can last up to ten years, clearly much more eco-friendly than disposable products. Similar to them, menstrual disks offer the same benefits, just in a different shape. A menstrual sponge is another option, made of sea sponges. They are absorbent and reusable, but some medical professionals worry about the safety of them. Sea sponges can contain yeast, sand, mold, and bacteria. Reusable pads are pads made of cloth that are washed after use; women usually own multiple. Period panties are of a similar vein, as underwear with more absorbency.
People lately have become more interested in sustainable products; unfortunately, due to the social stigma surrounding menstruation, less discussion is focused on eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products. Disposable period products remain a huge issue, contributing to pollution during manufacturing, creating trash that will last for hundreds of years, and posing potential health risks. While none of the product alternatives are perfect solutions, they are a step in the right direction.
Eliminating the waste of disposable products with long-term, reusable, sustainable products is an important element of moving toward a more sustainable future.