Period products and the planet
How can we ensure that we don't harm the Earth with every monthly cycle?
Around the world, at any given time every single day, 800 million people are menstruating. On average, a menstruating woman will do so once a month for five days, for around 35 to 45 years of her life - that's eight years' worth of periods during an individual's lifetime (wateraid.org). Whilst period poverty is, sadly, a very real thing in too many places around the world, people who do have access to sanitary products will reach for these vital items as soon as the red wave hits.
Tampons and sanitary pads are the period products most commonly used by menstruating people, yet most mainstream brands spring from animal testing and contribute to environmental ruin, harming the Earth and its creatures.
What's wrong with some period products?
Here's a scary fact: nearly 200,000 tonnes of menstrual waste (that's 4.3 billion disposable period products) is produced in the UK alone each year (beyouonline.co.uk). We know that waste is bad, but why is menstrual waste so terrible? Some brands of pads and tampons contain toxic chemicals - things like plastic (you'll find it in most conventional period products - in the wrapping, applicator and even in the very fibres) and compounds that are used to produce fragrances and bleaches (to unnecessarily whiten tampon strings and pads).
Once the products have been used and dumped, the harmful substances they contain can work their way out into the environment.
One of the main issues with period products containing plastics and other chemicals, is that they are rarely disposed of 'properly' - 2.5 million disposable tampon applicators are flushed down the toilet every day (globalcitizen.org). Where do these usually end up? In the ocean. A recent UK beach clean-up found nine plastic applicators for every kilometre of beach (wearedame.co) - that's a whole lot of plastic, leading to so much harm. In underwater ecosystems, plastic items are easily ingested by marine creatures, clogging up their stomachs, and the chemicals that leach from products that are not eaten can work their way into habitats, poisoning plants and animals, endangering entire bionetworks.
However, even tampons that are disposed of properly (in a bin) can end up harming the environment - on a landfill site, where they take six months to biodegrade (though most plastic gets blown into the sea before it has a chance to biodegrade!).
Pads are much worse - made from 90 per cent plastic, each one takes an astounding 500 years to break down. Though not as many sanitary pads are flushed as tampons, 1.4 million still end up going down Britain's toilets each day (Global Citizen).
Plastic isn't the only un-environmentally friendly material in tampons and pads, often, cotton is, too. Although cotton is a natural fibre that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it is, in fact, one of the most environmentally demanding crops. Modern cotton farming has become so widespread and intensive that large amounts of water and chemicals (like fertilisers and pesticides) are needed to produce the amount of cotton demanded. The soil around cotton farms becomes depleted of any goodness, meaning that not much else will grow there again.
Cotton farming is commonplace in Uzbekistan. Only 50 years ago, the Aral Sea flowed across an area of 66,000 km2 and was surrounded by lakes, marshes and wetlands. In one generation, it has shrunk to a mere 10 per cent of its original volume. Why? Because of cotton farming in the country. Nearly 20,000 litres of water are withdrawn for every kilogram of cotton harvested (ejfoundation.org). This is having devastating impacts on the wildlife that depend on the sea and surrounding bodies of water. The demand for cheap cotton has also resulted in the fuelling of a severe humanitarian crisis, too, with human rights abuses and harrowing conditions for workers.
What can we do?
When you then consider that each UK menstruator will use around 11,000 tampons or pads in their lifetime (modibodi.co.uk), you start to see the impact you can make just by changing the products you use.
Luckily, plastic- and chemical-laden single-use tampons and pads aren't the only options - reusable products exist which are both better for the environment and easy to use, and they are also often cheaper in the long run! Plastic-free and washable panty liners, period pants, menstrual cups and multi-use tampon applicators, are fantastic options that are widely available.
If reusable products really don't appeal to you, lots of vegan brands have started producing 100 per cent certified organic cotton pads and tampons, while instigating ethical and sustainable practices and carbon offsetting procedures to reduce the impacts of farming this material. There are also brands which use hemp, bamboo, cardboard and recycled plastic in their products.
So, look around and find out which product is best suited to you, and make a change that will help to protect our Earth from more harm.