Analysis: Is your time-of-the-month routine damaging the environment?  


By Megan Johnstone

Many of us are much more aware of how human activity impacts the environment than we used to be. Narratives such as climate change have become harder to dismiss. This gradual surge in awareness has targeted aspects of life with an amplified call for a change in behaviours. Even the smallest aspects of our daily routines can be associated with causing harm to the environment. 

The sanitary sector is certainly not exempt from this, and many women might take the disposal of these products for granted. But the truth is that they are a huge contributor to environmental damage. The Women’s Environmental Network has found that, on average, a woman will use more than 11,000 disposable menstrual products over her lifetime. This produces a staggering amount of waste. While periods are a reality that we cannot avoid, we could be managing the waste they are associated with a cleaner, eco-friendlier way. Join Lil-Lets and explore this idea further.  

Periods and the environment 

Most of us will be poised and ready to manage our period with all of our favourite essential sanitary products. However, the plastic content of many of the sanitary products that we rely on is having a detrimental effect on the environment. 

Firstly, let’s consider what the carbon footprint of a person’s menstrual cycle looks like. 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. Various studies have deciphered the scale of this impact. Friends of the Earth established that one year’s worth of single-use sanitary products amounted to the equivalent of 5.3kg of carbon dioxide produced. This is due to the fact that many cotton tampons contain small amounts of dioxin, a by-product from the creation of the synthetic carbon fibre rayon. They also contain a whole host of pesticides from the cotton harvesting process. 

There’s also the matter of plastic. Research has revealed that some sanitary towels have up to 90% plastic content. Meanwhile, 6% of the average tampon is made up of plastic. Non-applicator tampons contain 97% less plastic than their plastic applicator alternatives and are an easy way to make a greener choice. 

Buying green is easy enough. But what about recycling? While the emphasis has always been placed on recycling, sanitary products do not fall under this practice as they are used to collect human waste. But plastic applicator tampons can last up to 500 years in the environment. How do we deal with this issue when recycling isn’t possible? 

While society has certainly recognised the harmful qualities of single-use plastics, sanitary towels haven’t received the same scale of public attention as single-use straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds. These other items are all set to be banned in 2020 in a bid to clean up our oceans. But findings from the Marine Conservation Society revealed that for every 100m of beach cleaned, there is an average of 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste found. This amounts to four panty-liners, pads, backing strips, plus at least one tampon and an applicator.

How can we improve our sanitary waste management habits? 

Firstly, we all certainly need to become ‘binners’.  Not flushing tampons down the toilet might seem like an unspoken rule, but it seems as though we do need to speak about this more in light of the consequences that being a ‘flusher’ rather than a ‘binner’ can have. 

Flushing a tampon down the toilet can result in blockages further down the sewer system. 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. One was recently discovered which equalled the length of six double-decker buses in Sidmouth, Devon.   

So, becoming a ‘binner’ is one of the smallest yet most significant steps that we can take to reduce the environmental impact of sanitary products such as non-applicator tampons. The Journal of The Institution of Environmental Sciences found that around 2.5 million tampons, 1.4 million sanitary liners, and 700,000 panty liners are flushed down UK toilets every day. 

In terms of choosing eco-friendlier products, switching to organic tampons can be beneficial as they are made from cotton which has not been treated or washed in any harmful products such as bleach, chlorine, or other chemicals. The cotton used is free from pesticides, omitting any potential ecological effects. In turn, the growth of organic cotton can also help to lessen the development of climate change as the farming practices lock carbon dioxide into the soil. If you are committed to becoming more environmentally conscious, then consider changing your conventional tampon for an organic alternative. Alternatively, if you are still using applicator tampons, you should swap to non-applicator or cardboard applicator products. Lil-Lets range of non-applicator tampons includes an absorbent core made using viscose, ensuring that it is entirely plastic-free. 

A sense of openness from sanitary brands is a key facilitator for allowing consumers to adjust their choices to align with environmental concern. This narrative certainly needs to be communicated on an even larger scale to provoke change. Groups such as The Women’s Environmental Network are leading the way in promoting their #PeriodsWithoutPlastic movement, to educate and share ideas on how we can tackle the issue of the sanitary sector’s role in ecological damage. 

Action is needed in terms of disposing of sanitary waste. We must all commit to making small changes and substitutions to our own cycle routine. This could be by stocking up on non-applicator or organic products or by binning rather than flushing our pads and tampons!

This article was produced in collaboration with Lil-Lets.


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