Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - June 16th, 2022
Periods: a seemingly constant hassle that has placed a burden on menstruators for ages. It cannot be denied that the stigma around them has evolved, with some people even finding a sense of beauty in their menstruation cycle. Yet, one thing remains certain: they are simply not sustainable.
Now, this has not always been true, with convenience not being as much of a priority in past generations as it is in our modern industrial world today. Many of the period products used in the past were reusable, evolving from woven fabrics to belts with cloth pads to cloth bandages. Yet, the change in period products arose with the Industrial Revolution.
Commercial manufacturers borrowed the innovative idea from French war nurses to make pads from wood pulp, with the first disposable pad being released in 1888.i This was followed up by the disposable “Tampax” tampon in 1933.ii
Periods products continued to evolve throughout the 70s, with convenience and sanitation becoming large priorities for menstrual product companies. Historically, convenience and environmental degradation have gone hand-in-hand, with plastic becoming an instrumental characteristic of menstrual products. Tampons, as we know them today, come in a plastic wrapper, have a plastic applicator, and plastic strings, while plastic-wrapped pads use plastic-based synthetics to soak up any blood. However, the amount of plastic waste is hard to gauge, with menstrual products being deemed as medical waste, and, therefore, not required to be logged alongside other municipal waste. Yet, the amount of plastic from menstrual products entering landfills is obviously high, with the average menstruator alone using somewhere between five to fifteen thousand pads and tampons in a lifetime, simultaneously consuming plastic that cannot be recycled due to sanitary concerns. iii This high but necessary consumption of menstrual products can indirectly be linked to climate change, as the more trash landfills take in, the more methane emissions enter our atmosphere.
Despite the waste factor, the most ecologically-tasking part of the life of a tampon, for example, comes from the actual production of the applicators. iv Per the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the largest impact of feminine hygiene products comes from the processing of low-density polyethylene, mostly used in the plastic strip on pads and the applicators of tampons. These simple features of these menstrual products come with a high cost, with a year’s worth of menstrual products leaving a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2. v To put this into perspective, a car emits 0.411 kilograms of carbon per mile. vi This indisputable environmental impact of menstrual products has led to an overwhelming effort by environmentalists to create sustainable products that suit different body types, menstrual cycles, and religious morals. Here are some of the innovative methods menstruators use today.
Period underwear can hold three to five teaspoons of blood, are washable, and are relatively affordable. Similarly, reusable pads, made from washable cloth, last for several years, acting the same as regular pads by attaching to underwear. This gives reusable pads a sense of familiarity while limiting the unnecessary plastic that comes with disposable pads.
Reusable tampon applicators are a great option for those who feel most comfortable with the useful applicator but are looking for a sustainable option. Most reusable applicators are made with long-lasting materials, using antibacterial technology to prevent the growth of germs. They are used with cotton tampons and can be rinsed and reused on the go. For those looking to ditch the applicator entirely, applicator-free tampons are another great option. These are compact and discreet, and they can easily be inserted using your fingers. Many menstruators may be familiar with the use of menstrual cups, which have become a popular product over the past few years. The cups come in different materials and sizes, all based on your age, body type, and flow level. The flexible cup, often made of rubber or silicone, can be inserted into the vagina where it collects blood internally for up to twelve hours. This long-lasting product can be removed, rinsed, and re-inserted. A similar menstrual disc works in the same way, essentially sitting within the vagina to collect menstrual blood internally.
Aside from actual supplemental menstrual products, some menstruators may even prefer to free bleed. Many women have joined this decision that they sometimes classify as a movement. In an attempt to challenge the stigma around periods and raise environmental awareness around periods, menstruators are choosing to bleed without using any products whatsoever, resisting the harmful convenience that period product companies have pushed for decades. However, this is not often a viable option for many, as many cultures view periods as being “dirty” and “shameful.”
Despite the many new options for menstruators out there, it is important to view periods with a degree of intersectionality. Many people may already struggle to afford disposable period products and do not have convenient access to sustainable options. Additionally, because of the religious morals around periods in many cultures, some may feel uncomfortable when using reusable periods products, preferring to dispose of their period blood. Similarly, due to sanitary reasons, menstruators may not have access to the cleaning methods that many of these sustainable products require.
Because of these certain dilemmas, period product companies must make sustainability a top priority in their various missions to provide care to those that menstruate. Once sustainability is universal within the world of period products, we will be able to ensure everyone has access to eco-friendly options that work for them.
i Rubli, S. (2016, November 24). The History of the Sanitary Pad. Femme Focus. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://femmeinternational.org/the-history-of-the-sanitary
ii Ali, Z. (2021, March 12). The evolution of menstrual products: From the 1800s to present. The Girls Company. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://thegirlsco.com/blogs/news/the evolution-of-menstrual-products-from-the-1800s-to-present
iii Borunda, A. (2021, May 3). How tampons and pads became unsustainable. NationalGeographic.com. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from
iv Shreya. (2016, November 4). The ecological impact of feminine hygiene products. Technology and Operations Management- MBA Student Perspectives. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/the-ecological-impact-of-feminine hygiene-products/
v Wood, L. (2016, September 18). A menstrual cup? Is that what it sounds like? Gross. The Eco Guide. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://theecoguide.org/menstrual-cup-what-sounds gross
vi Environmental Protection Agency. (2014, May). Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle. National Service Center for Environmental Publications. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from
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