Menstruation matters. And the menstrual products we choose matter to the environment. When we use traditional menstrual pads or tampons, we’re using plastic-based products that end up in landfills, lakes, rivers, and oceans. When we buy plastic-based period products, it’s clear that the environment is paying the price.
Did you know traditional pads are 90% plastic? They contain the same amount of plastic as 4 plastic bags! FOUR for ONE menstrual pad!
Traditional pads contain leak-proof polypropylene or polyethylene as the plastic base, have plastic wings, plastic polyester fibers in their absorbent core, and are individually packaged in plastic. And when we take a look at traditional tampons, it’s the same story. Traditional tampons have plastic holding together cotton fibers, and a plastic string made from polyester or propylene, come in plastic applicators and are individually wrapped in plastic packaging. Even in public restrooms when we throw these products away they’re disposed of in scented plastic baggies. Can you believe there’s plastic even at their disposal!
“Tampons come wrapped in plastic, encased in plastic applicators, with plastic strings dangling from one end, and many even include a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part. Pads generally incorporate even more plastic, from the leak-proof base to the synthetics that soak up fluid to the packaging” — Alejandra Borunda (National Geographic)
And ALL that plastic has to end up somewhere. It’s estimated that over the course of a single menstruator’s lifetime, 5 to 15 THOUSAND pads and tampons are used. This adds up to 400 POUNDS of plastic. And most of which ends up in our landfills, sewer systems, and waterways. With so many people and so much plastic, this amounts to an ENORMOUS amount of plastic over the years. It’s no wonder that 200,000 TONNES of plastic waste are generated from menstrual products each year.
These plastics aren’t biodegradable and they can’t be recycled because they’re considered medical waste. In fact, plastic from the pads and tampons we use can take up to 800 YEARS to degrade! That means generations from now will have to deal with our plastic waste, and only by the year 2821 will the plastic period products from today finally break down. These plastics don’t easily degrade, and worst of all, even when they do they can break down into microplastics. Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm in diameter that can end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. The single-use plastics found in traditional menstrual products pose a HUGE issue of microplastics and threatens wildlife and human health. According to a study conducted by The European Commission, discarded menstrual products are the 5th most common plastic waste product found in the ocean. In 2013 during a beach clean-up in New Jersey, THOUSANDS of plastic tampon applicators had to be cleaned up. Clearly, we have a plastic problem.
But the good news is that plastic-free periods are possible! The sustainable menstrual movement is gaining more and more attention and popularity! Recently, plastic menstrual products were excluded from Canada’s 2021 single-use plastic ban, but environmental groups are urging Canadians to switch to more sustainable alternatives such as menstrual cups, tampons with cardboard instead of plastic applicators, and reusable or biodegradable pads. It’s becoming increasingly important that we have access to sustainable and affordable menstrual products that are an alternative to the traditional plastic period products. AND the good news is, Ruth pads are coming SOON - pads that are disposable, biodegradable, and compostable! Everyone wins!
Jane McArthur, an environmental sociology researcher and Ph.D. candidate in the Doctoral Program in Sociology at the University of Windsor, explains that traditional menstrual product companies need to do more: “We need to be looking at different materials to be creating menstrual products so that we're not leaving this horrible environmental legacy and that we're not creating health impacts on the environment and ourselves as humans in the production of these products.” McArthur further explains how stigmas silence necessary conversations on menstruation and shares that: “We're still not really comfortable talking about things like menstruation... In many ways we need to stop creating a stigma around women's bodies, we need to stop mystifying, and we need to start looking at women's bodies and women's health as normal, [...] Through that conversation then we can talk upfront about the products that women use and why we need them to be more environmentally friendly.”
When we open up conversations on menstruation we’re also opening up conversations on healthcare, period positivity, and the environment. “By not talking more openly about menstruation, companies, and governments can get away with not addressing the environmental impacts associated with women's health.” — Jane McArthur (environmental sociology researcher, Ph.D. candidate at University of Windsor)