To raise awareness of the need to protect our planet, the UN has made June 5 World Environment Day.

Whether you’re eight or a 108, you’ve likely heard about the widespread damage caused by plastics. You may have been taught about this at school, saw it on an Attenborough show, or read a depressing statistic in the news. But something I have never considered before is the impact of disposable period products on the environment, and research shows that many others haven’t either.

Taboo Around Menstruation

Before we begin, it’s important to acknowledge the privilege of being able to afford menstrual products in the first place. Around 500 million people globally (even in wealthy countries like England) live in period poverty, meaning they don’t have access to basic sanitary products or hygienic bathroom facilities. However, this shouldn’t prevent us from criticising the environmental impact of such products.

‘An average woman … will use around 15,000 menstrual products during her life,’ says journalist Ore Ogunbiyi, who often writes about women’s health. ‘Someone with abnormally heavy periods might need thousands more.’

Some of the most common forms of period products are sanitary pads and tampons, both of which are disposable. As with most forms of rubbish, we probably never consider what happens to our sanitary products once we’re done with them. As far as we’re concerned, we throw them away, the bins get collected, and that’s that. But this short-sightedness means that we aren’t taking into consideration the effect menstrual products have on the planet after they’ve ended up in landfills, especially when they are estimated to be made up of 90 per cent plastic. Notice the word ‘estimated.’ Unfortunately, the taboo around discussing periods means that there is still a lack of concrete research on the subject.

‘Measuring the environmental impact of menstrual products is complex, and there is a stark lack of scientific literature exploring these issues,’ begins a study published just two years ago. Carla Liera, an SEI research associate, explains that ‘societal menstrual stigma’ is one of the main ‘challenges’ when discussing the impact of sanitary products on the planet. Even though menstruation is a natural process that affects over a quarter of the world’s population, there remain significant cultural barriers to discussing the topic in public.

No Wings Attached

The majority of people probably have a no-strings (or should I say ‘wings’) attached attitude when it comes to menstrual products. But in reality, these monthly necessities have a huge impact on the environment, both before we’ve purchased them and long after we’ve thrown them away. Before we even pick up a pack of period products in Boots, carbon dioxide emissions have already been generated during production, packing and transportation. Indeed, the type of period products we choose can greatly impact our ecological footprint, with disposable pads contributing 7.4kg of CO2 per person every year and tampons contributing 7.6kg. In comparison, reusable menstrual cups only contribute 0.5kg of CO2.

But the real trouble begins once the disposables have been thrown out. Currently, around 50 million period products end up in landfill every month, which results in 200,000 tonnes of waste per year in the UK. Furthermore, disposable pads and tampons contain plastics that take between 500 to 800 years to break down – a prolonged process during which microplastics are produced. These microplastics can escape into our oceans and pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems because they contain noxious chemicals. The threat grows even larger when 4.6 million tampons and pads are flushed down the toilet every day. Not only does this cost water companies millions of pounds a year in blockages, but it also means that plastics are sent straight out to sea. Nowadays, single-use sanitary products and their packaging are some of the most commonly found plastic items in our oceans.

The Reusable Revolution

Over the past year, there has been a rise in the popularity of eco-friendly sanitary products, such as reusable pads, period pants and menstrual cups, which can last up to ten years. Because these products can be washed and reused over and over again, they reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. To illustrate this point, one pair of period pads can last up to two years and is the equivalent of using 200 disposable pads. Additionally, they are made up of natural or synthetic materials, meaning they don’t produce microplastics that could potentially escape into our oceans. While reusable period products are a great solution to our over-reliance on plastic, there is still a lack of education around them, with many people completely unaware that there are more environmentally-conscious options available.

‘Lack of awareness concerning the environmental impacts of disposable menstrual products is one important barrier to the use [of reusables],’ says Megan Harrison at the University of Ottawa. ‘A recent study that explored the level of knowledge individuals have about the environmental impact of menstrual products found a relatively low awareness of these issues.’

On a more cheerful note, the same study found that those who were more aware of the environmental impact of period products were more likely to choose eco-friendly alternatives. The positive effects of education can immediately be seen in the classroom. In 2023, the Environment Agency incorporated unbiased lessons about the environmental impact of period products into the PSHE curriculum of over 10,000 English schools. This raised awareness around the amount of plastic in disposable sanitary products and why they should never be flushed down the toilet, as well as encouraging discussion around reusable products. After the lessons, students said they were four times more likely to try plastic-free disposables and three times more likely to try menstrual cups.

The evidence shows how important it is to educate ourselves on our ecological footprint. Every year we are making great strides towards raising awareness around the environmental impact of period products and finding affordable alternatives to disposables. However, more could be done to educate all generations, not just schoolchildren, on how to help protect our planet.

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