Updated: May 2, 2022
By: Sophene Avedissian
Every year, women spend around $2.8 billion on pads and tampons. These disposable menstrual care products can take between 500 and 800 years to break down when they end up in landfills. The chemicals used in pads and tampons such as dioxin, chlorine, and rayon pollute the environment further. According to Green Periods, the first data-driven initiative on sustainable menstruation, “26% of the global menstruating population generates almost 30 billion pounds of non-biodegradable menstrual waste” annually.
Yet, the popularity of pads and tampons continues among menstruators, and is at an all time high.
Sustainable care products such as menstrual cups would combat pollution and waste caused by pads and tampons. Though plastic's perilous consequences on the environment are widely accepted and recognized by society, the similar effects of disposable period products remain barely discussed.
The issue has been brought to light by environmental activists. Acknowledgment serves as the first step towards finding a solution. Recognizing the problem at hand could make the use of sustainable period products widespread, however, it comes with several challenges. the lack of information and education surrounding sustainable period products, and its high cost. Both factors significantly reduce the accessibility of environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Ella Daish is an environmental activist in the UK. She leads a campaign EndPeriodPlastic.
“I did some research, and I was horrified to find out that the products that I’d been using for so many years could contain up to 90% plastic,” Daish said in PERIOD’s 2021 Period Action Day Video, discussing her path to combating the issue. “I didn’t know what I could do about it at this point, and I kept questioning, ‘Why are we using something for a few hours made up of plastic which is then taking centuries to break down?’”
Daish decided to change her consumption habits first. But to her surprise, she couldn’t find any environmentally-friendly alternatives at a local supermarket. “It was either plastic or plastic,” recalled Daish.“That’s not fair. How can we make a decision about what we buy as an individual if there is no option available? We can’t.”
Most local supermarkets sell mass consumption products, explained Zeal Desai, the founder of Green Periods. “These period products, unfortunately, are not accessible for a lot of people because they haven’t been around for that long,” she said. “I think the high upfront cost could be a barrier for a lot of people.”
Desai continued, “Just not enough is known about these products. People don’t hear about them; they don’t really know how to use them, and there’s always some squeamishness too when it comes to inserting products or cleaning your own blood, washing it off your pads.”
While the increasing number of sustainable menstrual care product brands makes menstruators’ lack of knowledge less of a concern, the high cost makes such options unattainable for most menstruators.
August is one of the many companies that acknowledges the intersection between menstrual care products and the environment. It offers options that decompose in 12 months. The brand also tries to keep its products affordable. It charges $8.25 for pads, $11 for tampons, $7 for liners. Additionally, August does not charge its consumers the tampon tax and the sales tax placed on period products in most U.S. states.
But even this may not be enough. Days for Girls, a nonprofit working towards ending period poverty, reports that 500 million girls and women experience period poverty. This term refers to inadequate access to period products. As a result, menstruators have to miss school or work, which by itself continues to hinder menstruators’ access to menstrual care products, making sustainable period products even more out of reach.
Impoverished menstruators do not have access to a wide range of period products, let alone sustainable options, said Kate Barker Swindell, the Service and Operations Manager of PERIOD.
She believes the right piece of legislation might offer a solution and suggests that
“government dollars” pay for only sustainable options, such as cups, period underwear, and other menstrual products.“We view the ability to use sustainable period products as a luxury, which is something that we can all work to change,” said Swindell.
Widespread utilization of eco-friendly menstrual care products will decrease the danger disposable products pose to the environment. But passing such legislation may take years: it can become a federal law only when the majority of states agree to pass similar bills.