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Period Sustainability: The Need for Eco-Friendly Alternatives

Kira Lomas sheds light on the environmental impact of disposable menstrual products.

A fleet of tampons rest against a baby blue background

Photo by Ava Sol

With the threat of single-use plastic pervading society, more pressure is being placed on people to reconsider and alter their habits of consumption, including the products women use to control their periods.

Research and studies have highlighted that the disposability, synthetic properties and harmful chemicals involved in traditional menstrual items pose significant environmental damage to our landfills and oceans – an issue that is forcing consumers to adopt sustainable alternatives.

With this resurgence of eco-friendly period products, women are now following sustainable, menstrual trends using organic pads/tampons, period underwear, reusable pads and menstrual cups as innovative sources to fight period pollution.

However, in today’s climate of economic instability, not everyone has the choice or means to have a sustainable period, with a global figure of 1.2 billion women experiencing deprivation in terms of access to basic sanitation and hygiene. In this case, sustainability is not necessarily at the forefront of everyone’s concerns; comfort, affordability and access to menstrual care demand more attention in many women’s lives.

Managing Menstrual Waste

Evolving from pre-20th Century methods of repurposing commonplace materials into pads to the disposable products that have come to saturate girl’s and women’s homes today, the feminine hygiene industry has undergone many design transformations, each one providing women a degree of practicality, decency and reliability in their period products.

Consequently, these revolutionary developments have fostered a plastic culture that has come to dominate the mass market of period products. Supermarkets and local shops have become inundated with disposable sanitary products, demonstrating their widespread popularity and convenience amongst female customers and overall thriving nature of the industry.

However, damaging elements of this trade have passed unchecked in the UK, including the internal manufacturing of period products, riddled with bleach, rayon and pesticides contributing to polluting the environment, as well as the staggering 200,000 tonnes of menstrual waste accumulated in landfills as a result of sanitary usage.

The concern over controlling this issue has created a new demand for sustainable period products, in particular the menstrual cup. Designed with medical grade silicone, this alternative item can last up to 10 years, ensuring considerable reductions in waste and low environmental impact, and ultimately saving a woman approximately £128 a year.

Other eco-friendly options growing in intrigue are ‘period pants’ and reusable pads, the former promising to hold up to 3-5 teaspoons of menstrual blood and the latter apparently more absorbent than disposable pads.

A switch to these alternatives and making an active effort to practise period sustainability, while at first daunting and unusual compared to your normal routine, creates a significant, lasting and positive impact on the health of the planet. Crucially, emphasising the benefits of ‘greener periods’ also opens up a discussion around menstruating in general – something that has typically remained stigmatised and silenced around the world.

Barriers to Plastic-Free Periods

Although period sustainability is becoming more widely acknowledged, not everyone can engage with it. This is particularly prevalent in developing countries, plagued with cultural taboos, poor washing facilities in schools and homes and a lack of period education.

Misconceptions on menstruation have alienating and traumatising effects on women, forced into a life of restrictions on cooking, work activities, washing standards etc., and constantly in fear of being seen to be menstruating due to lack of privacy and adequate cleaning spaces to manage their periods.

“A life void of plastic is neither attainable, nor a top priority for all people with periods.” – Zainab Mahmood, ‘We can’t all have sustainable periods’

In these poorer countries, using sustainable period products like reusable cloth pads or menstrual cups are not always a viable solution as these methods, require running water and laundry facilities to maintain. There are also deeply embedded beliefs in some cultures across the world that using tampons can lead to loss of virginity by breaking the hymen, presenting challenges to using the menstrual cup as it goes against cultural norms. In these circumstances, having a sustainable period is not a priority – surviving and making use of what you have matters the most to these women.

Plastic is a ubiquitous product; everyone uses it in their daily lifestyles, and periods are no exception. With women choosing to implement sustainable period products into their lives, the environmental cost of disposables will decrease, positively impacting the environmental state of the planet. However, every woman's experience of having a period is different, emphasising the importance of choosing the products that best suit your needs.


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