How Your Period Affects the Environment (And What You Can Do About It)

Women make up half the human population and during their childbearing years, the majority of women who aren’t pregnant menstruate each month. Some transgender, intergender or genderqueer people also have periods. Many people who menstruate turn to traditional tampons and pads — those in developing nations use scraps of cloth sometimes along with other absorbent materials to stem the flow. Regardless of where they live, few people pause to think about how their menstrual products impact the environment. 

Many commercial menstrual products come packaged in plastic. Many tampons use plastic applicators, and most pads contain a plastic lining to prevent blood from staining trousers. However, alternatives do exist which are both vegan and eco-friendly. What are they? Let’s take a closer look at how the monthlies impact the environment and what women can do to reduce waste.

The Impact of Menstrual Hygiene Products on the Environment 

Those who opt for traditional pads and tampons go through anywhere from 11 to 30 hygiene products per menstrual cycle. On average, people who use tampons burn through 5,000-14,000 tampons throughout the course of their lifetimes. Multiply this by the number of menstruating people on earth and you begin to realise the extent of the waste. 

Now, factor in the resources used in production as well as the environmental impact of shipping menstrual products around the nation and globe. Trucks used to transport these goods release carbon emissions, as do boats and planes used for international shipments. Even though a sizable proportion of these products utilize cotton – a renewable resource – they also use plastic. Plus, cotton requires water to grow and many commercial farms use harsh chemicals to treat pests. 

Alternatives to Traditional Tampons and Pads

Fortunately, today, alternatives exist to traditional tampons and pads. One such alternative is the menstrual cup. Menstrual cups are made of silicon, and they are reusable. While the initial expenditure runs higher than the cost of a box of tampons, there’s no need to buy new cups cycle after cycle — each cup is washable and lasts for up to 10 years. Check out MoonCup, Tulip Cup or Diva Cup for eco-friendly period options.

Another alternative to traditional pads and tampons arose when inventors drew from experiences of women in Nepal far from mainstream civilisation. Here, as in many remote areas, women use discarded pieces of old saris and other cloths to manage their menstrual flow. It took a small innovative leap, but before long, period panties were born and now offer a sustainable and vegan alternative to tampons and pads. 

Making Menstruation Sustainable Worldwide 

Ruby Raut, CEO and founder of WUKA Wear, a heavy-duty line of period panties, grew up in Nepal where using scraps of old saris was a common way to manage menstruation. Raul studied environmental science in the U.K. and fused her newfound knowledge with the experiences she had growing up as a girl to create a sustainable line of products. 

During her coursework, Raut realised that many sanitary products lined shelves in her native Nepal, but few if any options were sustainable. She invented period pants which completely replace tampons and pads. Wuka Wear panties can hold as much fluid as four tampons, making them ideal to wear all day long even on heavy flow days. 

The panties serve a dual purpose of sustainability and practicality in Raut’s native land. Many women in Nepal live in such remote areas, trips to the store prove onerous. Plus, few women travel alone, and many village men leave their families for substantial periods of time to work in neighboring India. Because Wuka Wear panties can be washed and reused, they eliminate the need for lengthy trips for supplies. 

Raul further bolstered her environmental commitment by partnering with the organisation Plastic Oceans U.K. to reduce the impact feminine hygiene products have on the environment. On June 8, 2019, World Oceans Day, the group released a report revealing 4.6 million tampons, pads and panty liners are flushed every day in the U.K. alone. Switching to sustainable period products reduces your carbon footprint by preventing this waste.  “Most of these products also contains huge amount of plastic in them which takes hundreds of years to degrade,” says Raut. “One WUKA replaces more than 100 tampons or pads or pantyliners and so far we have stopped 2.3 million tampons and pads from going to landfill with people switching from disposable menstrual product to WUKA period pants.”

WUKA also advocates for users to stay away from flushing. “The UnFlushable campaign encourages people to stop flushing menstrual products and switch to reusable brands such as WUKA period pants, menstrual cups and cloth pads,” explains Raut. “We are asking every one to join the FlushMob Challenge, download the poster and put it up on toilet doors across the UK to raise awareness of the hazards of flushing disposable tampons and pads. WUKA and Plastic Oceans UK are committed to saving marine life from the devastating impact of this unnecessary plastic pollution and have come together to help raise awareness of the plastics in most of the UK’s big sanitary product brands, and to encourage people to turn to reusable menstrual products.”

WUKA represents the first brand to achieve the prestigious Vegan Society approval. The society strives to exclude the exploitation of animals not only for food but also for use in other products like clothing and hygiene products. 

Helping People Make the Switch

If you’re considering making the switch to more sustainable menstrual products, there’s little to no health risk associated with either the period cup or panties. The success someone has using these products depends upon them selecting the right size. Women who have never given birth, for example, may find a menstrual cup intended for women who have already had children far too large and leaky. 

The same goes for panties like the Wuka line. Finding the right size is key to getting the highest level of coverage to prevent leaks. Those who suffer unusually heavy periods, such as those with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), can double up and use both a menstrual cup and absorbent panties to prevent any chance of leakage. 

Making Menstruation More Sustainable for All

People won’t stop menstruating any time soon. Mother Nature sees to that. But this doesn’t mean the environmental harm connected to periods needs to continue. Sustainable period products use fewer resources to manufacture as fewer are needed, require less shipping as they last for years and solve a major problem for women in remote areas — namely, getting to the store each month for supplies. 

Switching to more sustainable practices whenever possible, including during that time of the month, can be another step on the way to a more eco-friendly lifestyle. By switching to eco-friendly period products, we can do much to keep the earth clean for future generations to enjoy while still remaining tidy and dry ourselves. 

Header photo by Josefin via Unsplash

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Kate Harveston

Kate loves to write about health and the environment. She is passionate about creating a cleaner and kinder world where wellness thrives to its fullest potential. If you enjoy her work, you can follow her blog, SoWellSoWoman.com

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