Menstrual Waste: Environmental Risks and 7 Alternatives

The management of menstrual waste is a possibility that is not available to everyone. Menstrual waste is neglected or ignored because these wastes are categorized under medical waste. However, menstrual products such as tampons and pads generate extraordinary waste. 

It has been estimated that the average woman discards approximately 150 kilograms of tampons, sanitary pads, and applicators in her lifetime, about 90% of which are plastic. 

The vast majority of these products end up in landfills (where they can take more than 450 years to decompose), or worse, as garbage on our beaches or polluting our oceans and seas. Menstrual hygiene products are single-use plastic items most often found in marine litter.

When global leaders concentrate on climate change, sustainable strategies, and neutralizing carbon emissions, no one has diverted their attention to proper menstrual waste management. 

Some initiative approaches are in implementation, but they are not enough. Proper eco-friendly menstrual waste management should begin from home.

Environmental Risks Due To Menstrual Wastes

An infographic showing the percentage of pads (menstrual waste) deployed
Where is menstrual waste being deployed| Picture by Stackumbrella

Pads and tampons are absorbent hygiene products, accounting for about 2% of the total volume of municipal solid waste. It isn’t easy to recycle these products due to their heterogeneous composition. 

They are usually sent to landfills or incinerated. A significant part of the product ends up in the ocean: in the UK alone, each day down the drain, wash about 700 thousand pads and 2.5 million tampons.

Pads, tampon applicators, and disposable hygiene products use plastic that can take hundreds of years to decompose.

1. Plastic in Pads

Initially, Pad designs began to incorporate thin, flexible, leak-proof polypropylene or polyethylene as the base. 

Advances in adhesive material technology reinforced the use of flexible plastics, allowing pads to be attached directly to an underwear rather than hanging from a cumbersome and bulky belt system. 

In the late 1970s, designers realized they could make flexible plastic “wings” that would wrap around underwear and secure a pad in place. 

And designers innovative ways to weave thin polyester fibers into the soft part of the pad to remove the liquid in the absorbent cores, which became narrower as the super absorbent materials became more sophisticated.

2. Plastic in Tampons

In the early 20th century, multiple physicians and public members were apprehensive about the idea that women, especially young women, could come into contact with the genitalia during tampon insertion.

Perhaps, the inventors thought, women could insert the tampon more modestly and hygienically with an applicator. The first registered US patent for tampons, from 1929, included a design for a telescopic cardboard applicator tube. 

Others suggested stainless steel or even glass. In the 1970s, plastics could be molded into soft, thin, and flexible rounded shapes – perfect, some designers thought, for tampon applicators.

But not only is the applicator plastic: many tampons incorporate some pieces of plastic in the absorbent part. A thin layer often helps keep the cotton part tight. In some cases, the rope is made of polyester or polypropylene.

3. Plastic in packaging

By mid-century, the major players in the US menstrual products market were competing fiercely for customers but were running out of technological advancements for packaging. 

Companies increasingly devised ways to offer their customers discreet purchase, use, and disposal options to stand out.

Women needed to be able to toss products in a bag and keep them clean, carry them from the desk to the bathroom, and then from the bathroom stall to the waste container. That meant plastic wrap for everything. 

And for disposition, there are also plastics to help with that part of the process. In some public restrooms, small packages of scented plastic bags sit on the bathroom walls, ready to enclose and disguise used menstrual products on their short way from the stall to the trash bin.

4. Production

The production of pads and tampons itself also damages the environment – given that these funds are disposable, and a considerable part of the population uses them, the volumes of their production and consumption are gigantic. 

In addition, the most dangerous pesticides are used to grow cotton, from which tampons are made. They are a factor in the onset of infertility, neurological dysfunction, and other diseases.

5. Traditional Practice and Ignorance

flowchart showing possible health and environment hazards of menstrual waste
Potential health and environmental hazards of menstrual waste| Flowchart Illustration by Myles Elledge

For many of us, buying menstrual products is entirely normal, but many women in the world cannot afford it. 

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, a UNESCO report found that 1 in 10 girls miss up to 20% of school days each year due to their menstrual cycle because she does not have adequate protection. 

In India, women wear towels or old clothes during their period. A study conducted in Jharkhand, India, found that 17% of the women interviewed threw their towels into the same pond where they bathed. 

Consequently, the Indian government promotes incineration of menstrual waste as a disposal method. It will help reduce the environmental burden of waste if incinerators meet design and emission standards.

But the problem affects all women globally, as they are still not treated as necessities almost everywhere.

Zero Menstrual Waste Management Alternatives

Menstruation in itself is regarded as a taboo subject all over the world. Menstruating women, girls, and adolescents have always faced difficulties during their periods to maintain their hygiene and manage menstrual waste.

In addition, more and more women are focused on reducing the environmental impacts of menstrual waste, for which we have listed some alternatives to make the menstruation cycle sustainable. 

1. Proper Sanitary Containers is a must in Public Toilets

Mostly, in any country, steel tins or lead with containers are placed in the public toilets for disposing of wastes. However, these steel cans or dustbins are not adequately disposing of tools for menstruation wastes. 

In the UK, for any public toilet for women or neutrals, you can find rectangular sanitary containers exclusive for waste derived from menstrual management. 

This waste is managed separately and allows the proper processing of plastic applicators and millions of other microplastics contained in these products. 

Without a comprehensive policy, this option can quantify the waste and manage it more appropriately without depriving women of options to manage their menstruation. 

These containers could represent a public-private transition policy in the world and, for their part, open a window to understanding the growth patterns of the industry and the population that depends on them. 

It should be coupled with a transition that leads to management products with a much lower environmental impact.

2. Washable sanitary pads

The washable sanitary pads are produced in the classic form of sanitary napkin, usually equipped with a clip to stop the wings that secure under the briefs. 

They are made of ultra-absorbent fabric (bamboo fiber, cotton) with a waterproof outer coating and are washable and reusable. 

There are various lengths and levels of absorbency to be chosen according to the flow and your needs. 

There are unfounded prejudices about them: it is often feared that they are uncomfortable, absorb little, and make you feel a little dry. 

Nothing could be more wrong than this. First, the tactile sensation is comfortable, given the softness of the fabric. These pads are not irritating do not create unpleasant rubbing (which often happens with traditional sanitary pads). 

They absorb very well, much more than an ordinary sanitary pad, leaving a feeling of dryness for many hours – even eight if the flow is not abundant.

When they need to be changed, rinse them under cold water to remove most of the blood, then wash them by hand or in the washing machine; they dry in no time by putting them in the air. Depending on the flow you have, you can buy 4 or 5, and with these, you can go on for years. 

3. Eco-Friendly Menstruation with Menstrual Cups

Aside from the washable and reusable cloth pads, the menstrual cup was one of the first products to take off as a reusable solution. 

Numerous brands come in different shapes and sizes, but they are all made from medical-grade rubber or silicone and work similarly.

These cups are inserted into the vagina to catch and collect rather than absorb menstrual blood. The maximum period of service is ten years if it has no damage. 

Different manufacturers recommend changing the cup every 2-5 years, so one cup can replace 260-650 pads. There are various sizes and flexibility; you need to choose it according to your personal needs. 

If you are employing it for the first time, it may not be easy to insert it, but the convenience will be priceless once you comprehend how it works. 

4. Use Sea Sponge

Another sustainable alternative to traditional menstrual products is the reusable sea sponge. Menstrual sea sponges can be made from synthetic materials or all-natural sea sponges collected from the ocean floor. 

The ones made from ocean floor sea sponges are more compostable and biodegradable. The sponge works similar to a tampon and needs to be removed and rinsed/cleaned every few hours after use. 

While they are more cost-effective than most menstrual cups, they do not last as long and usually need to be replaced after six months.

5. Menstrual Proof Underwear

The resorbable and reusable menstrual underwear is the latest addition to the menstrual product’s market. 

Perhaps the most popular brand of menstrual panties is THINX, which a few years ago ran an ad campaign for the New York City subway. 

Menstruation-proof underwear (or menstruation panties) generally have absorbent cores made of cotton and waterproof material that allow women to use tampons or sanitary napkins during mid-light days or act as a method of backup. 

Like reusable menstrual cups, the upfront cost of underwear is expensive (THINX panties range from $ 24 to $ 39 depending on style). However, they are reusable and washable and can last up to two years. 

6. Biodegradable absorbent pads

The most practical alternative for those who do not want to change their habits but want to pollute less is biodegradable absorbent. It is exactly like a regular sanitary napkin, except it comprises compostable materials. 

It is usually made with chemically unbleached organic cotton, has a natural glue, and is contained in biodegradable packaging. 

You must make sure that it is (it is not enough that the claim says “made of cotton,” it must specify compostability) biodegradable. 

You need to check the indications concerning the disposal of your municipality of residence. They are mainly found in stores dedicated to the organic and natural world.

7. Don’t drain the menstrual wastes down the toilet

sanitary pad problems of India
India’s sanitary pad problem and waste generation| Infographics by Rahul Gupta

Many women think they can throw sanitary pads in the toilet since they are made of cotton; however, there is plastic to the composition of traditional sanitary pads, and – also for this reason – they cannot be thrown into the toilet.

In their composition, there is plastic (polypropylene, polyester, powdered polymers) and the glue that makes them unsuitable to be thrown into the toilet. They can clog pipes, not dissolve with water, and pollute the environment for hundreds of years.

If your menstrual products are made of ecological biodegradable (but not compostable) cotton, they must be thrown away together with the waste that is categorized as unrecyclable. 

They, too, will end up in landfills even if they dissolve in less time than solutions that contain plastic. Regarding menstrual cups, many make the mistake of throwing them in plastic.

Although it may seem made of this material, the cup is made of medical silicone, which, in turn, is primarily composed of silicon. This non-polluting material is also found in nature.

However, it is found in nature does not mean that it is compostable. To dissolve naturally, it would take tens and tens of years before its decomposition into multiple non-toxic parts; it is essential to get rid of it correctly.

It will be necessary to throw the cup in the dry fraction: yes, it too will end up in landfills, but throughout a woman’s fertile life, this will likely change about 4 cups which, once dissolved, will not be toxic to the environment; a big difference compared to the 9,000 sanitary pads that contain plastic!

The Global Leaders Pact For Aggressive Action Against Plastic is Right from a Gender Equality Perspective!

The widespread ban on single-use plastics in Mexico City from January 1, 2021, took tampons staple menstrual management products out of the street, reflecting a lack of gender perspective and misunderstanding what this particular bodily function entails. 

An intersectional gender perspective is required to challenge the political and social infrastructure that considers that menstruation is unimportant. 

Uncollected and poorly disposed of waste has a significant impact on both health and the environment; they emit massive greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change and significantly pollute water bodies, natural landscapes, and even endemic species. 

On these grounds, Mexico City proposed prohibiting single-use plastics, which are unnecessary and can be substituted with other materials. 

Throughout 2020, a progressive transition to straws made of other materials and cloth bags began. However, this didn’t happen with the tampons in short supply throughout the world today. 

The global leaders and various organizations working for climate change omitted strategy and information on disposable menstrual products because of the prevailing social taboo around menstruation. 

They forgot to consider millions of girls, women, adolescents while deciding to take aggressive actions against plastic applicators such as tampons without guaranteeing that they will generate a substitute at the same price.

It has left millions of women without alternatives to menstrual waste management. Again, now in environmental efforts, women have to bear a disproportionate burden because decisions are made without a gender perspective. 

The lack of conditions for the dignified management of menstrual waste can affect the right to human dignity, health and well-being, education, work and non-discrimination, and gender equality.

In addition, this type of policy breaks with the fundamental principle of women to have autonomy over their own body: that the government or the industry decide which menstrual management products “authorize” goes against the preferences, tastes, and comfort of each girl, adolescent, woman, and menstruating person to determine how they want to manage their menstruation freely.

Product Table

Some of the alternatives for menstrual non-degradable or nonreusable products over the Amazon are:

ProductsAlternatives for
Softdisc disposable menstrual period discNon degradable period disc
L. organic cotton tampons Tampons containing plastics
Saalt soft menstrual cupsPlastic wastes from several products
ThinX sports Menstrual underwearNon-degradable and uncomfortable products
Reusable Waterproof Bamboo Charcoal Menstrual PadsNonreusable pads
L. Chlorine Free Ultra Thin Pads Regular AbsorbencyChlorine bleached pads
Revive Reusable Bladder Support for WomenNonreusable Tampon applicators

Conclusion

The problem of disposing of products for menstruation makes us reflect on the environmental impact of each available solution.

We encourage using all those products with a long life cycle for sustainable menstruation, such as menstrual cups, absorbent panties, or cotton pads.

If all women reduced the use of disposable sanitary towels and tampons, the positive impact on the environment would be very high.

We should also manage other wastes from food, chemical, and technological sources. Do not forget the golden-green rule of 3R while doing so.

Ankur Pradhan

Ankur Pradhan holds a bachelor’s degree in education and health and three years of content writing experience. Addicted to online creative writing, she puts some of what she feels inside her stormy heart on paper. She loves nature, so she is trying to motivate people to switch to alternative energy sources through her articles.
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