Staying at home this year has brought about some inconvenient truths. For one, the magical sanitary-product-removing fairies who take care of those bathroom bins at work don’t appear to be doing home visits (rude!). This has been an unexpected and disruptive revelation, as now that dusty little bin next to your toilet needs emptying … a lot. You would be forgiven for thinking that everyone you live with is using titanic-length jumbo pads, because that little bin has been filling up quickly. However, the truth is that managing your period generates a substantial amount of waste, all of which is heading straight to landfill.
Just how much waste? Sustainable Menstruation Australia estimates that the average woman will use approximately 12,000 disposable pads and tampons over her lifetime. Yes, you read that figure correctly. Unfortunately, the societal need to maintain discreetness about the fact that half the world’s population bleeds every month has meant that there has been limited mainstream discussion on the environmental impacts of disposable pads and tampons. Until now.
Plastic … not so fantastic
The environmental consequences associated with using disposable pads and tampons are immense. At the forefront of them is the long-term love affair between disposable sanitary products and plastic. Not only are sanitary products wrapped in copious amounts of plastic packaging, but the actual products themselves are manufactured with plastic inside them.
The majority of pads and tampons available for purchase are made from a combination of natural fibres, such as cotton and rayon, and synthetic fibres, such as polyethylene or polypropylene. These synthetic fibres are used for moisture protection purposes, as well as enhancing the smoothness of the product’s texture. Unfortunately, these synthetic fibres are also forms of plastic and they feature heavily in your standard product.
In 2018, the BBC reported that standard disposable pads can be composed of up to 90 per cent plastic, the equivalent of four disposable supermarket bags. All this plastic means that your average disposable tampon or pad is not biodegradable. In fact, a recent Choice report estimated that each sanitary pad can take between 500 and 800 years to decompose. Considering that disposable pads and tampons need to be replaced every four-to-eight hours, the amount of non-biodegradable waste that is generated from each period is monumental. In reality, the pad you threw out last month will still be lurking around landfill generations after your great-great-granddaughter begins her first cycle.
Thankfully, there are a few reusable menstrual products available that can help reduce the amount of plastic you’re sending to landfill. These products are now infiltrating mainstream supermarkets and chemists, meaning you won’t even have to move to Aunt Brenda’s commune to find them.
A menstrual cup is a small, cone-shaped cup usually made out of flexible and soft medical-grade silicone. It works by being folded in half and inserted like a tampon. Once inserted, the menstrual cup pops out from its fold to create a strong spill-free seal, catching all that beautiful blood and tissue heading southwards.
The menstrual cup is a brilliant alternative to disposable tampons as it can be left in for up to 12 hours depending on your flow, and you only need one of them, which heavily reduces your plastic waste. Instead of absorbing all fluids like a tampon, the cup only collects what your body is letting go of internally, making it a perfect swimming option — hurrah for no more sea-soaked tampons! Menstrual cups are also easy to remove and clean. Once you’ve removed the cup, empty the liquid out into the toilet or sink, rinse it and re-insert for another 12 hours of carefree bliss. By doing this you will also really get to know your period and regular flow, which is useful for spotting any irregularities that may pop up in the future.
Cost: A good-quality menstrual cup costs between $30 and $55. Cups on the more expensive side tend to be made out of softer and more flexible silicone, making them easier to fold and smoother to insert. While it is a significant upfront cost, a menstrual cup can last up to 10 years, making it a perfect option for your purse and planet. Spending less than a fiver per year on your period? Yes please!
Don’t let looks fool you. While these undies may look like standard underpants, they actually have magical powers that allow them to absorb all your period goodness without using a disposable pad or tampon. The secret lies in the multiple layers of high-tech moisture-wicking fabric in the crotch component of the underwear. It absorbs your period while at the same time keeping the area dry and comfortable.
The period undie scientists have been hard at work, and now underwear is available in a range of absorbency levels ranging from light, moderate to heavy overnight bleeding. These ultra-high absorbency pairs can absorb the equivalent of up to four tampons worth of bleeding, so you can rest easy in your new white bed sheets knowing that you are fully covered. Being reusable for up to two years, period undies have far less of a waste impact than disposable tampons or pads. Plus, they are very easy to care for. Simply add to your weekly cold machine wash, hang to dry and voila! Ready to go for next month. By investing in a few pairs of period undies, you will save the environment while also protecting your other underwear from pesky period stains. Win, win!
Cost: Period undies range from $14-$60 per pair. Practically, you will need multiple pairs as they tend to take one-to-two days to fully dry out before you can re-use them again.
Reusable cloth pads are a great option for those of us who prefer to avoid having to insert a product. Most reusable cloth pads are constructed from multiple layers of fabric, with an absorbent material such as terry towelling or flannelette in the middle. The backing of the cloth pad has a layer of synthetic material to ensure that your pretty undies don’t suffer from the dreaded red leak. The fact that you can wash and re-use most cloth pads up to 75 times makes them a far more sustainable option than their disposable sisters. Additionally, most reusable cloth pads use snap buttons to close, which can be reused or recycled.
Cost: Reusable cloth pads range from $15-$25 per pad. Similar to period undies, you’ll need to buy a few of these to keep you covered, although most brands offer bundle packs.
Up to you
Deciding on a suitable menstrual product is an inherently personal decision. However, it’s also one of the most influential decisions you can make on your sustainability journey. The array of reusable menstrual products now available means it’s possible to manage your period comfortably and hygienically without it being at the expense of the planet.
Words Marcella Louise