Close to 20 billion pads, tampons, and applicators enter North American landfills every year. The mind-boggling generation of waste is just one in a series of serious environmental impacts created by feminine hygiene products. Is it possible to green your period?
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Each method of birth control has its own set of environmental considerations, but some can reduce or even eliminate menstruation. If you use birth control, choosing such a method could remove you from the 26 percent of the world’s population who need to use some kind of period product every month.
For most Americans, disposable pads and tampons are the default. Pads contain cotton and plastics, primarily LDPE, which produces more greenhouse gases than other plastics when it degrades. Tampons are also made from cotton, with applicators made from either plastic or a nonrecyclable coated cardboard. Cotton is often unsustainably produced and both pads and tampons have been shown to release toxic chemicals used as fertilizer or in processing.
The environmental impact of pads and tampons can be reduced by buying organic pads and using non-applicator tampons. But disposables will always generate more waste than other methods.
Sea sponges — the same ones used for bathing — are an organic alternative to tampons.
Renewable (if harvested correctly) and biodegradable, they can last up to six months, but there are concerns about their safety and hygiene. In the 1980s, FDA tests found “significant risk” of infection due to contaminants. Although preparation methods may have improved since the ’80s, the FDA has not revisited its decision.
Many women today are eliminating waste by returning to reusable cloth pads. Nontoxic during wear, organic cotton or bamboo pads are also less damaging to produce than conventional cotton. DIY pads are easy to make from old clothing or fabric remnants. They do, of course, need to be washed, so there is a lot of water use in their life cycle, which can be decades long.
Absorbent underwear is the latest innovation in feminine hygiene. There are several brands of period panties, made from a variety of materials. The best-known, Thinx, claims to replace the use of two tampons with each wear. Like pads, they must be washed with cold water. Air-drying preserves the antimicrobial fabric and saves energy. Because they are so new, there is not a lot of information about how long they last or whether the fabric is recyclable or biodegradable.
The menstrual cup is usually made from medical-grade silicone, which is not recyclable, but is fully degradable. Cups should be washed with an oil-free soap after each use and boiled at least once per cycle. Manufacturers recommend replacing the cup annually, but users claim to have used a cup for up to 10 years without problems. Because of its long lifespan and small size, the menstrual cup generates the least waste of any period product.
Feature image by silviarita on Pixabay