From hidden plastics to toxic chemicals, here’s how to navigate the minefield that is your monthly bleed
How many plastic bags do you get through in a typical month? One here and there when you forget your bag for life at the supermarket? The few you use for sweaty gym kit? Whatever the figure, add on 11.
Because, according to a recent campaign video from Lil-Lets, that’s the equivalent amount of plastic that a woman gets through in an average period. Think 5,500 plastic bags over a lifetime – or 12,000-16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products.
But why plastic? It may come as a surprise, but most conventional sanitary products contain plastics such as polypropylene in varying degrees. Menstrual pads, for example, can be made up of 90% crude oil plastic, while tampons often contain non-biodegradables in their anti-fray filming, the string and, most obviously, the plastic applicators that 60% of British women prefer to use.
And all that plastic has to go somewhere.
“Disposable menstrual products create a huge amount of avoidable waste,” says Natalie Fee, environmental campaigner and founder of City to Sea. “Which not only impacts the health of our oceans but can lead to physical and mental health issues. Reusable period products are a simple and effective way of having a period that’s better for our planet, our health, and our wallets.”
So, what, exactly, does a plastic-free, eco period look like?
The good news is that plastic-free alternatives – or those that use biodegradable plastic – are increasingly popping up on the market, alongside other more sustainable (think reusable) options.
“Changing the way you approach your period is a simple lifestyle change but one that can help prevent hundreds of millions of sanitary products worldwide negatively impacting the planet.” Martha Silcott
“Previously, conversations around periods have been so taboo that considering the ethical and environmental impact of the sanitary products you’re buying hasn’t been one that’s been openly had,” says Nikki Michelsen, co-founder of 100% plastic-free, biodegradable and organic tampon brand OHNE. “That’s changing – women want to make more sustainable choices. Tampons with cardboard applicators are nothing new – it’s just that plastic alternatives have always been marketed as the more comfortable and easier-to-use option. The fact that they take 500 years to biodegrade was never communicated – until now.”
If you can’t quite get your head around cardboard, keep your plastic footprint down with the reusable tampon applicator from Dame; Bloom & Nora washable bamboo menstrual pads; and period underwear brands Wuka and Thinx.
The menstrual cup is a silicone product that can be worn for 12 hours then washed and used again… and again – and it’s becoming increasingly popular. Flex has disposable menstrual discs that offer the convenience of a tampon, whilst generating 60% less waste, and their update of the cup (to be released in the spring) is designed to be easier, and less messy, to remove. Try the OrganiCup, which holds up to three tampons’ worth of fluids and can be worn for up to 12 hours. Plus it’s made from soft medical-grade silicone that doesn't mess with your body.
Sanitary products are made from cotton, which is typically sprayed with chemical pesticides during production. Like plastics, these chemicals can wash into rivers and oceans, where they destroy biodiversity, and, trapped in the cotton fibres themselves, end up in the body. Studies have shown a connection between such pesticide residues and endocrine dysfunction.
Choosing 100% organic period products such as those from OHNE, TOTM, Natracare and Freda, can make a difference – organic cotton is biodegradable and produced without toxic pesticides. Plus they are also free of chlorine bleach, dyes and synthetic fragrances.
According to the Women’s Environmental Network, an average of 23 sanitary pads and nine tampon applicators are found per kilometre of British coastline, which, when you think that 2.5 million tampons, 1.5 million pads and 70,000 panty liners are flushed every single day, shouldn’t be a shock.
These products clog up loos and pipes, and overflow into rivers and seas. The plastic contained within them? It concentrates, enters the food chain and, eventually, ends up on your plate.
Which is where Martha Silcott, founder of FabLittleBag (fablittlebag.com) comes in: “I wanted women to embrace being a ‘Binner’ of their sanitary items, instead of having to wrap them up in reams of toilet roll – which can, at times, be awkward, embarrassing and impractical.”
Silcott created easy-seal (ie you only need one hand) bags from cornflour, which means they are biodegradable in landfill conditions.
As Silcott says: “Changing the way you approach your period is a simple lifestyle change but one that can help prevent hundreds of millions of sanitary products worldwide negatively impacting the planet.”
Words by Emma Pritchard