Updated: Jun 14
Q: What is one of the biggest waste problems that no one likes to talk about?
A: Period products.
There’s plenty of publicity about ditching single use plastic bags and switching to using a bag for life but not a whisper about doing the same for single use tampons and pads. Tonnes of plastic, cotton and packaging are thrown away every single day just to manage menstruation - an average pack of sanitary towels contains the same amount of plastic as five plastic bags!
Globally, over 100 million women are estimated to use inorganic tampons, each throwing away approximately eleven thousand of them over their lifetime. The cotton part takes around six months to break down, however the plastic applicators may never fully degrade, plus they are often found in the ocean and inside sea life. And that’s just tampons! Non organic sanitary towels are even more widely used and take around 500-800 years to break down, although because of the plastic they contain they may never fully biodegrade. This is a huge problem that isn’t being properly addressed through education or promotion.
Yet there are several environmentally friendly solutions available. They can even save you money! Here’s a run down of some better choices you can make for your period and the planet:
Menstrual cups are a great way to reduce period waste and also can be very cost effective too. Period cups are silicone or rubber little bell shaped receptacles that can be inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual fluid. It sits inside you and forms a suction seal. There is a small tail or stem that is used to remove the cup and it can be reused for up to ten years. This can significantly cut the amount of disposable waste from traditional sanitary items such as pads or tampons, plus the packaging and also carbon emissions from transportation.
The tricky part of menstrual cups is getting the insertion correct. It can take a little practice plus it seems that people develop their own methods. Here’s what works for me. Fold the cup into a ‘W’ shape across the top, insert like a tampon but then slowly bring the cup back down until you hear a slight noise like air rushing in - that’s the cup inflating properly. Push the cup back up and then give a slight gentle tug, you should feel the suction. After a few hours - for me it’s usually four - it’s time to empty. Find the stem using your fingers and then pinch it and gently pull down. The cup should then emerge from your vagina and tip the contents into the toilet. I normally give the cup a good wash and then reinsert. At the end of the period the cup is given a short boil to sterilise.
I have super heavy periods, so I always need extra protection. Yes, there is slight leakage sometimes, but hey I’ve had that every period with tampons so there’s no difference when using a menstrual cup for me personally. I can’t feel it once it's inserted and it’s great knowing that there isn’t a huge waste every month either. I also don’t need to remember to stock up or empty the bin so often!
Most people are put off menstrual cups for several reasons, one being cost. However you can find a very reasonably priced cup here
Menstrual underwear is another way of reducing sanitary waste. Here the pants absorb period fluid and negate the need for disposable items. Just wash and reuse once dry. They are constructed from various different types of material, from bamboo, cotton to wool. You can buy pants with different levels of absorbance - the same as when choosing a tampon - with heavy flow pants able to hold the same as five tampons! If you are not completely sure then there are options to test the pants out for sixty days with some companies too.
I find that the pants are suitable for the last couple of days when my flow has almost finished. For the most part, period pants are there as the back-up for any leaks or over flow from the menstrual cup, which works really well. Previously I had had to use a combo of tampon and pads anyway, so using period pants instead of sanitary towels is a good way to feel more confident with no waste. For me personally, the pants do not hold up to a really heavy flow on their own. So I would recommend testing these based on your own menstrual blood levels.
The major issue with the big name period pants is cost. They are not cheap BUT low cost period pants are now available on the high street, yay!
Another way to significantly cut the amount of trash from managing periods is to swap to reusable sanitary towels. These are also made from bamboo and organic cotton, (although some do contain polyester, absorbent polymers and leak proof barriers, so take a look at the product information). It is a case of washing them and drying as you would any regular clothing and reusing. You can buy pads for different levels of discharge and also different types, some with removable cores and some that are just a whole pad.
I personally haven’t tried any reusable sanitary towels, but I expect they are pretty much the same experience as the period pants. So I would check your output requirements and adjust your needs, considering using another product in conjunction. Again, they are not super cheap and are an investment which pays off over time. I would need at least three on rotation to act as a backup to my cup, which works out at around the same price as one pair of the more expensive period pants.
From a functionality point of view they are an easy eco swap from the plastic filled single use option, so if a cup is not for you this is a suitable alternative.
Again, this is a product that I have not used myself. However I think that they would be really useful! I’ve read reviews and users have commented that they are great for swimming on your period. In my opinion, they would be useful for light days or when you might not be able to use a cup.
They are made from squares of material that you roll up to form a regular tampon shape. You can find ones that are made from 100% organic cotton and basically you use them the same way as a regular tampon, you just wash and re-use instead of throwing away. As with the other reusable items it's about spending a little initially and then recouping that cost by subsequently having free periods. It also means less waste which is fab!
If you find using a menstrual cup is too tricky or not for you then switch your tampon to one that is made from 100% organic cotton without a plastic applicator. That’s a great start!
Also if the tampons contain no plastic (check the box or buy Natracare tampons here) they are compostable, as are cardboard applicators. Additionally, you can help reduce the carbon footprint of the tampons by bulk buying. If you need some help with insertion you could also try a reusable tampon applicator...
Reusable Tampon Applicator
I haven’t used applicators for years but some clever people have designed reusable ones, which is a really awesome way to cut down that single use plastic. Made from medical grade materials, you load it up by placing a tampon in the barrel and then insert as normal. Clean the applicator under some running water and keep it in a little wash bag. Who would have thought that tampons could be like shooting bullets?
Lastly there you can also choose to use eco-friendly disposable towels. They are made from certified, sustainable wood pulp and plant based polymers, meaning that at least pad doesn’t contain any plastic. This means that they can break down more easily and the same as the eco tampons, you can also compost them!
So you want to be a better bleeder? Try out some of the suggested options and find what works best for you. Go with the flow!
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