Tampons, towels are the source of significant plastic waste

Beyond their plastic applicators, tampons may include plastic in their wrappers, string, and rayon mixed in with cotton. (Photo: Getty Images)

When we think of reducing our waste, we often think of bragging about a reusable water bottle or bringing our own bags to the grocery store. But what about menstrual products? According to Global Citizen, disposable versions represent more than 440,000 pounds of waste per year – and that’s because most products on the market are mostly plastic.

For tampons, this can include the plastic applicator, string, and in some brands, synthetic, absorbent rayon blended with cotton. The pads, on the other hand, come with bulkier plastic packaging, a waterproof plastic adhesive layer and moisture-wicking polyester fibers, making them up to 90% plastic. That means they all sit around for a very, very long time – up to 800 years, in fact.

But much of the unsustainable problem with menstrual products occurs early in their life, says Susan Powers, director of the Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Clarkson University. “While most people think of the impact of their product at the end of its use, like going to a landfill, larger impacts occur in the manufacturing of most products,” she said. at Yahoo Life. “Pads and tampons, as well as their packaging, are made from vegetable and petroleum raw materials. Transforming these natural resources into the chemicals and materials used to make the products involves many steps and a lot of energy.

Even tampons without an applicator made from 100% organic cotton, however, can put a strain on the environment, as the growth of the natural fiber requires a lot of water and may require other practices labeled as “unsustainable” (although the allegations have been intensely debated).

Still, given that a single menstruating person can expect to use between 5,000 and 15,000 of these products in their lifetime, there’s plenty of room to make a change. Gen Z are taking to social media to talk about how to make periods more sustainable, and a quick search for #sustainableperiods on TikTok (which has been tagged over 8.5 million times on the app) reveals many young content creators sharing how they reduce waste during their periods, whether through the use of products like menstrual underwear or reusable menstrual cups.

Some even use reusable applicators on tampons that don’t come with them, which Powers, who has analyzed the environmental impact of menstrual products, calls the right move.

“In the analysis we performed, not having an applicator reduced the total environmental impact score by 14.5%,” she explains. “The applicator is just one more example of our cultural expectation that we need disposable products for five-second use. In some cases, Gen Z is doing more than just talking about how to have a longer lasting period. – they also create new options that everyone can use Nadya Okamoto, who at 16 founded Period Inc. to ensure everyone had access to menstrual products, turned to making more sustainable products when the companies she worked with didn’t seem so interested in doing it themselves.

Today, Okamoto’s carbon-neutral company, August, makes menstrual products that are alternatives to what’s on most supermarket shelves, as well as reusable products, for customers who can’t. -not be as comfortable using them. Its pads, for example, are plastic-free and fully biodegradable in 12 months – and recently went viral on TikTok thanks to their packaging, which breaks down completely in boiling water.

“With August, everything we do is for our community,” Okamoto tells Yahoo Life. “When we started I thought we would just do menstrual cups and underwear because I thought that was the most sustainable. Then we looked to our community and found that 95% of us they used tampons and pads and were not interested in changing.”

Okamoto says the goal for August is to build trust in the brand and continue to promote products that become more sustainable over time. “When people hear about ‘durable menstrual products’ they assume it’s a lot more expensive and they assume it doesn’t work,” she says. But more and more alternatives are proving that this is simply not true.

What you can switch to now

Whether you prefer tampons and pads, as August discovered his clientele, or are willing to try just about anything to reduce your footprint, there are more solutions than ever. Here’s a quick breakdown of the alternatives to mainstream offerings:

More durable pads and tampons, but still disposable

In addition to August, companies like Dame (which sells reusable applicators with its applicator-free tampons, Freda (which has a built-in donation element), as well as trusted health food store brands such as Natracare, have Whether it’s reducing plastic in their products or committing to a zero carbon footprint, these brands offer the most traditional options for managing your period and reducing your impact.

Reusable menstrual cups

Soft silicone menstrual cups, such as Intimina’s uniquely shaped Ziggy cup and more oblong versions now available from a host of manufacturers – including Diva Cup, Lunette, Saalt (which also has shaped options disk), Cora (which does a line of products) and more – sit in the vagina, against the cervix, and draw blood. When they’re full, you wash and sanitize them, because proper care gives you up to a decade of use, which more than makes up for their $40 average price.

While some people experience a learning curve when it comes to using beanies, their varying shapes and sizes make it easier than ever to find a comfortable fit. A big advantage of using a menstrual cup, aside from the durability factor, is that there is only one product to carry with you at all times.

period underwear

Brands like pioneering Thinx – along with options like Ruby Love, Knix and many others, even Victoria’s Secret and Uniqlo – offer absorbent but non-bulky period underwear that can be worn in place of a pad, tampon, or cup, although some people double the options depending on their flow.

“Knix offers consumers a sustainable option that can significantly reduce environmental waste. Our Leakproof products are reusable, long-lasting options capable of holding between 1 teaspoon and 8 swabs (40ml) of liquid,” the company says in a statement. at Yahoo Life. “From our Leakproof Thongs to our Super Leakproof Boxers, our variety of machine washable products are designed for sweat, light leaks, menstruation and everything in between”

One downside to note is that studies have found that some of these products, particularly Thinx (which was the subject of a class action lawsuit in 2020) contain toxic PFAS (aka PFCs or perfluorinated chemicals) that can withstand biodegradation and disrupt hormonal health. risks, although the level of risk varies by brand.

They aren’t cheap either, but again, the average cost of $30 per pair is quickly offset when you consider the high and endless cost of pads.

Reusable pads

Much like period panties, reusable sanitary pads can be thrown in the wash and are more durable than the single-use variety. The Raël brand makes reusable organic cotton towels ($34 for three), without plastic packaging, that can be used up to 120 times. Knix has its own version, as does Hannah, Dame, and many Etsy designs.

One thing that is do not advised? Reusable stamps, especially on marketplaces like Etsy. While traditional tampons are regulated by the FDA as a medical device, reusable tampons, so far, are not — and doctors are skeptical of their safety, given the lack of research.

Finally, while there are many changes that individuals can make, Environmental activist Ella Daish, who created the #EndPeriodPlastic campaign (see her Instagram above with a life-size tampon applicator made up of plastic applicators) to eliminate unnecessary plastic from menstrual products, points out that it’s ultimately up to companies to change the genre of the products they create, so that customers can follow.

“A lot of times there’s pressure on the customer to change, but these companies have the ability to make lasting change in a way that I as an individual don’t,” she said. told Yahoo Life. “I wanted to empower these companies. The first year they weren’t really listening to me, but the support of thousands of people on the campaign who continually acted with me on these brands and called them to action, really got them to come to the table and engage with me.

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Bryce K. Locke