The topic of periods has finally stopped being taboo, so we can freely look into it from an environmental point of view. As most women use disposable, plastic-containing products during menstruation, we really have to consider this topic seriously. So let’s find out how harmful period products are to nature, and what zero waste swaps are available.
Since the average woman has periods for approx. 2,400 days of her life, she potentially throws away 10,000 disposable sanitary items. Along with pesticide residues, fragrances and plasticisers that are bad for the environment (and potentially for women’s health too), a pack of disposable pads contains the same amount of plastic as 5 plastic shopping bags. Even a tampon is made of up to 6% plastic, not including the single-use wrapping and unrecyclable applicator.
As a result, all conventional sanitary products end up in landfill or incineration plants, if not flushed down the drains. And down the toilet is the worst place they can end up! But unfortunately, a lot of people still aren’t aware of that. Which means these plastic products clog sewage systems and can overflow into rivers and oceans. It was recently estimated that pads and tampons are the 5th most common product found on European beaches.
But this scary environmental impact can be reduced to a minimum with eco-friendly alternatives. So what are your options for the most suitable zero waste period swap?
A menstrual cup is normally made from medical-grade silicone. It is inserted into the vagina to collect blood, body fluids and clots. It needs to be emptied after around 12 hours, or earlier depending on how much blood is produced.
A menstrual cup comes in different sizes, depending on age, flow and whether the wearer has given birth or not. Menstrual cups aren't a niche product anymore, and you can buy them in many supermarkets and pharmacies. However our advice is to do a bit of research first. Sizing charts and quizzes can help you choose the right one, with the best fit. We also suggest buying it from the brand directly or on an online shopping platform to have a wider choice.
It’s estimated that currently no more than 10% of women use menstrual cups. Yet 9 in 10 women who tried a menstrual cup during three cycles said they preferred it to single-use sanitary products.
If you do try a menstrual cup, find a good tutorial video online on how to correctly insert it. You might find it tricky the first few times, but be patient and you’ll soon master it. Other advice includes using water-based lubricant and starting to get used to it in a relaxed home atmosphere—waiting until you're fully confident before using it in a public toilet.
A reusable menstrual disc is pretty much the same, but it’s inserted and removed differently. A cup is placed in the vaginal canal whilst a disc sits further up, closer to the cervix. If we compare these two products, then taking out a disc is a bit messier than a cup. But there are some positive features that might make this a good option for you:
Be aware that menstrual discs can be disposable. Be sure to check before buying!
There are few restrictions on using a menstrual cup or a disc for most wearers. (That said, you should always read the instructions first, and consult your gynaecologist before the first usage if you have any doubts). You can use a cup any time you’d use a tampon; including during exercise and in the pool. The products are also suitable for use with IUDs, as long as they’re used correctly. And, like tampons, they can also be used if you haven’t had sex. As with all sanitary products, basic hygiene rules must be followed for your safety; wash your hands before and after inserting, rinse with soap before reinserting, and sterilise between periods.
As for the end-of-life management of cups and discs, you have a few options. It’s time to get a new one when your item has a sticky feeling, becomes chalky in texture or cracks or tears appear in the material. You can try to recycle it, but there are a limited number of private recycling schemes. Alternatively, you can burn it outside. As medical-grade silicone has no toxic additives, it can be burnt leaving non-harmful ash. But, of course, take care to follow all necessary precautions to avoid creating a fire hazard!
If a cup or disc doesn’t suit you, or you want to try a reusable alternative you could swap or sell it to save money. This might not suit everyone, but once a cup has been boiled it is safe and sterile so why not try? (Be sure to check the rules of whatever marketplace you use though, and make sure it’s clear that the item is used).
Most people don't fall in love with a cup or disc from the first try. But that’s often because it’s different from tampons and pads. Once you find the right size and type, you will love the benefits it brings, like:
Reusable period pads are nothing new. Before the invention of disposable sanitary towels, women used rags, sheeps wool, cotton, knitted pads, rabbit fur or even grass in their underwear to absorb menstrual blood.
Reusable pads are making a comeback. Now we have a range of practical fabric pads. They consist of several absorbing layers of cotton, wool, bamboo or other fabric, and a leakproof layer (though the latter isn’t necessary for daily pads). The pad stays in place with snap buttons (plastic or metal). It’s easy to look after the towels; just wash them at a low temperature in a washing machine and let them air dry.
You will need around 6-10 pads for 1 period. But the number might be bigger or smaller depending on your flow, period length and ability to wash them after use. They may be a bit bigger, but feel like disposable pads, which can be a valuable advantage for people who aren’t ready, or able, to put anything inside their bodies.
Each pad lasts for 5-10 years, so you’ll see the economic benefit within the first year of using them. But, unfortunately, pads can only be dumped or incinerated only after “retirement”. As they are made of natural and synthetic materials combined, they can be neither recycled nor composted.
Period underwear is like a reusable pad…but without the pad! This means they’re all you need to wear to prevent leaks. These special pants are made of an absorbent microfibre layer and waterproof polyurethane membrane, combined within a normal brief.
They can usually absorb the equivalent menstrual blood of 2-4 tampons and you can wear them for up to 12 hours, depending on your flow.
If you can’t afford to buy enough for your whole period, they can be a perfect choice for nights.
Usually, they can last for up to 2 years with regular use. Afterwards, like reusable pads, they will need to be dumped. Period pants aren’t currently recyclable.
We understand that switching to reusables after years of using disposable period products can feel too abrupt for some. Besides, sometimes we can’t wash a pad or clean a cup. In such cases, it might have to be a disposable option. But you can choose a safer single-use product that’s better for your health and the environment.
Organic cotton tampons are one of these options; available online and in some high street stores. They may also come with a cardboard compostable applicator, or you can order a reusable applicator separately. It works like a conventional tampon, but the product is plastic and chemical-free.
Organic cotton period pads can’t be totally plastic-free as they must be leak-proof. Despite more eco-friendly brands use a bio-based plastic layer on one side of the product and some companies claim their sanitary products are home-compostable in up to 2 years, we failed to find any certificates of compostability of wrapping or the product itself. That’s why we can’t be sure that you can compost your used organic cotton period pads (a quick reminder; bio-based and bio-degradable aren’t the same thing.)
We hope our information has helped you find the right eco-friendly period product and your swap will be exciting and worry-free!