SAGE (Sound Advice for a Green Earth) is a project by advanced students in Earth Systems and other programs to answer sustainability questions. Submit questions.
Q: How can I be more environmentally friendly with my feminine hygiene product choices? —Anonymous
The Essential Answer
A: Imagine that over the course of a woman’s roughly 38 years of menstruation, she only had to throw away four small menstrual cups instead of 8,000 to 17,000 tampons. That’s a difference of almost 300 pounds of waste! In the United States alone, approximately 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are discarded each year. These numbers are startling, especially when juxtaposed with the minimal impact of alternative feminine hygiene products.
Next time you find yourself stocking up on tampons and pads, consider making a choice that’s easier on the planet (and your wallet). The following products provide environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional feminine hygiene products.
1) Reusable menstrual cups are bell-shaped devices inserted into the vaginal canal to collect menstrual blood. A single silicone or latex cup can last up to a decade, making them much more cost-effective than tampons. (Compare a $35 Keeper to a 10-year supply of tampons costing $650.) To determine which model is best for you, check out online comparison charts of different brands and styles.
2) Reusable pads ($12 to $15) eliminate the waste generated by discarding disposable pads. These products are made entirely of cotton, instead of rayon and other nonbiodegradable materials used in traditional pads.
3) Another alternative is reusable underwear that wicks blood and prevents leaks so you can go without tampons or pads altogether. They are pricey ($24 to $38 per pair for brands like THINX), but many companies donate money or products to partner organizations in developing countries with each product purchased, a common business model in this industry. You can also pair reusable underwear with menstrual cups for extra protection.
If you remain committed to disposables, the best option is to use organic all-cotton products that don’t contain synthetic materials like rayon. Choose chlorine-free tampons and pads to avoid the chemical bleaching involved in the manufacturing of most disposable products. You can also opt for non-applicator tampons that won’t send extra plastic to the landfill.
Still have doubts about making the switch? A recent study found that 91 percent of tampon users would make the switch after trying out a menstrual cup.
As explained in The Essential Answer, it is clear that reusable menstrual cups, reusable pads and period underwear are more environmentally friendly than traditional feminine hygiene products. But just how wasteful are tampons and pads? And why do people still use disposable products if sustainable, cheaper options exist?
Let’s revisit the environmental impact of tampons and pads. In the United States alone, approximately 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are discarded each year. While many of these products end up in a landfill, others clog sewers or contribute to the staggering amount of plastics in our oceans. Tampon applicators can take over 20 years to break down in marine environments and can be ingested by animals, causing health complications or death.
Although physical waste from disposable products is significant, the largest environmental impact of tampons and pads is the processing of raw materials used in their production. In particular, the plastics used in pads and tampon applicators are made out of low-density polyethylene that requires energy-intensive processing. When you consider the whole life cycle of these products, fossil fuel emissions of plastic production damage the environment the most. If you have to choose between pads and tampons, tampons, especially tampons without applicators, are the more environmentally friendly choice because they require less plastic than pads.
Why don't more women use menstrual cups if they are so much more sustainable and economical?
“Our wasteful habits around our periods are intricately tied to misogynistic narratives around the female body and its functions,” explains Miranda Strominger, a master’s student in sociology and former employee at Ruby Cup, a Berlin-based social enterprise that sells menstrual cups and donates them to women in Kenya who are unable to afford sanitary products.
Tampon and pad companies often play into pre-existing societal taboos around menstruation, marketing their products as antidotes to the shame and embarrassment women must feel about their periods. They almost always depict blue liquid rather than red blood, and avoid realistic imagery of menstruation by portraying women dancing or swimming. Some even suggest the need for women to accommodate male desires during menstruation.
Because tampon and pad companies sell disposable products, they sell more of them to the average consumer than do companies selling sustainable, long-lasting alternatives. Money and advertising power allow companies to dominate the industry and reinforce the status quo. “It’s really hard to run a business with a long-lasting product,” Strominger adds, referring to the difficulty menstrual cup companies face breaking into the market.
Some women see learning to use and maintain reusable products as the biggest barrier to entry. Luckily, most brands offer clear, illustrated instructions and online FAQs to educate new users.
With so many options out there, it’s becoming easier to lessen our environmental impact while still taking care of our bodies. Still, many of us fall back on the products we were taught to use growing up, despite the existence of alternatives that make more environmental and economic sense. Consider trying out something new—you might be surprised by the comfort and convenience that come along with a sustainably managed period.
Annie Dillon, ’16, plans to complete her MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2017. Edited by Hannah Black, ’15, who plans to receive her MA in Earth Systems in 2018.