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Let's Be Honest, Episode 42: Menstruation products

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment!

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

Menstruation, the available products

Throughout the years, there has been a great evolution on the period market. From the traditional period products we became familiar with more sustainable ones that are eco-friendly and more caring towards women health.

To begin with, we have the classic pads. Very comfortable, easy to use and easy to buy at any convenience store. However, pads are non-disposable and therefore harmful to the environment since it is a single-use product that afterwards you throw away in the trash. Next, we have a more evolved form of pads, the reusable ones. Again easy to use and this time friendlier to the ecosystem but it is a bit of a work to clean it since you have to soak it overnight and then rinse and wash it. Now, it's time for the tampons. Convenient, comfortable and you can even go swimming, an activity that is not usually possible with the other alternatives. From the other part, tampons are non-biodegradable and furthermore, they may cause TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome), a bacterial infection that damages vital organs, so extremely care is demanded.

Menstrual cups are next in the row. This very affordable (longterm) and sustainable way of dealing with menstruation became famous in the late years but still has a long way ahead. The cups are reusable and you can rinse it and put it back in immediately. As a result, you use only one product throughout your whole period and you can even reuse it in your next periods for almost 10 years. That is the estimation of health scientists. Last but not least, we have the also very sustainable and eco-friendly period underwear that it feels like a regular underwear but is very absorbent and you can wash and use again each month. However, you have to collect enough pieces to create a wardrobe, so you can fearlessly deal with all your period days. [1]

Menstruation, the statistics

  • 45B menstrual products are used every year. Most of them contain plastic.

  • Almost 11k period products are used in a lifetime.

  • In the U.K., 2.5M tampons are flushed down the toilets daily.

  • One pack of pads contains five plastic bags worth of plastic. That is equal to 4.125 plastic bags in the lifetime of the average pad user.

  • Menstrual products are the 5th most common item found on European seashores.

  • According to the Statista Research, 34.1M women in the U.S. used tampons in 2020.

  • According to the Statista Research, 57.43M women in the U.S. used sanitary pads in 2020. [2] [3]

Menstruation, the discussion

Not far ago, the conversations regarding mestruation were considered as a taboo and stigmatised women. Well...still, we haven't make a great progress. Nowadays, there are plenty of women that are afraid to openly discuss or show that they are on their period and in certain cases, they are shamefully purchasing their much needed menstrual products.

A menstruator will possibly bleed for about 40 years, 5 days a month over the course of a lifetime, pretty much around 6.5 years in total. During this timeline, this person spends an average of 12,800€ on women care and disposes over 10.000 plastic products (200kg) that most commonly end up in landfills, seashores or oceans.

Since traditional period products are non-disposable and non-biodegradable, they need an estimate of 500 to 800 years to dispose (we are talking about 5 generations after you and still there will be the plastic tampons and pads, waiting to melt under the beautiful sun).

Plastic menstrual products, such as single-use pads and tampons are consisted by 90% of plastic. Even in the tampons, there are some plastic fibers on the cotton but also the string and applicator are made of plastic. These products along with their careful packaging and individual wrapping generate about 200.000 tonnes of waste each year. In addition to the obvious waste problem, this sanitary products contain some pretty dangerous chemicals like pesticide residues, bleach and phthalates that can harm the body by causing vaginal and urinal infections, growth of bacteria, TSS etc.

Companies are not required to disclose the ingredients of menstrual hygiene products, creating a worryingly opaque process. The cotton in pads and tampons is usually grown using pesticides. Pesticides, along with all other agricultural activities, make up approximately 30% of global emissions from agricultural activities, contributing significantly to global warming. Getting a handle on how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products is tough, in part because it’s labeled as medical waste and does not need to be tracked, and in part because so little research has even looked at the scope of the problem.

Thank God, the greener alternatives are here for us! Menstrual cups, which are the most known among all the sustainable products that exist, are very health and eco friendly but moreover, as mentioned before, budget-friendly. Many of them are made from silicone, a very green ingredient. The material is derived from silica, a type of sand, and as it degrades, it will slowly go back to its original state. It consitutes the second most abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust and one that isn’t hazardous to the environment. It is projected to reach 636.16M $ by 2027, as concerns about single-use waste rise and users become more aware of their options.

NIcole Darnall, foundation professor of management and public policy and director and co-founder of Arizona State University’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative, highlighted that there is a market barrier that prevent people buy the newest menstruation alternative solutions. “If you go to buy an organic carrot, a carrot is still a carrot,” she said. “If we talk about sustainable menstrual products, it’s a completely different product, so we’re having to educate consumers about the novelty of a product they have never been connected with before.” [4] [5] [6]

Menstruation, the environmental impact

Regarding to the environment, menstrual products might seem like an extremely ignorant percentage of plastic, but sincerely, they have a great harmful impact. A year's worth of a typical menstrual product impacts on climate, with a carbon footprint of 5.3kg CO2 equivalent. A carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of human activities. The idea of a ‘menstrual carbon footprint’ might seem strange, but the way we manage our monthly cycle can actually have this kind of direct impact on our climate.

Furthermore, most tampons contain chemicals such as dioxin, chlorine and rayon. While the products sit in landfills, these chemicals get soaked up by the earth and are released as pollution into groundwater and air. Concerning the water pollution, blockages further down the sewer system can be caused by flushing tampons down the toilet. It also contributes to the ‘fatberg’ epidemic which is growing in our sub-street level waterways. This is where fat, oil, and single use products such as sanitary items and face wipes have accumulated to form huge masses. However, organic tampons have not been washed in any harmful products such as chlorine, bleach or other chemicals, therefore are eco-friendlier alternatives to switch from. The cotton used is free from pesticides, omitting any potential ecological effects.

Figures from the Marine Conservation Society reveal that on average, 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste are found per 100 metres of beach cleaned. For every 100m of beach, that amounts to 4 pads, panty-liners and backing strips, along with at least one tampon and applicator. Of course, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are defined as pieces smaller than 5 milimetres. Microplastics found on our beaches and in the ocean come from 2 sources, those intentionally added to consumer products like cosmetics (primary microplastics) and those that originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items in the ocean or from washing of synthetic fabrics (secondary microplastics). The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup reported collecting almost 18,000 used tampons and applicators from beaches around the world in a single day in 2004. That number has likely increased along with the world’s population in the last decade and a half. [7] [8]

Author: Alexandra Bakalianou


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