Half of the month Sugandhi spends in remote forests of India documenting wildlife. One problem that plagued her was how to dispose of sanitary items. Her fear of throwing soiled pads into the wilderness terrified her. It was not pleasant to carry them around for several days before she returned to the city.
Then, a colleague suggested that I switch to a menstrual cups.
“I was initially hesitant. Gadadhar says that despite being hesitant at first, it has become a part of my daily life almost ten years later.
Around 800 million women have their periods every day. Based on an average number of periods, it is estimated that each person uses between 5,000 to 15,000 products in their lifetime. The majority of these products will end up in landfills, or the environment as plastic trash.
Popular products’ environmental impact
Many plastics are used in popular products such as sanitary pads and feminine tampons. Both come wrapped in the material and have plastic layers in the absorbent portion of the product. Many tampon brands include a plastic applicator and thread at their base. Some sanitary pads, however, are made up to 90% of plastic.
Single-use pads or tampons made of mixed materials are difficult to recycle. Reusable items, such as menstrual cup, reduce waste
Sanitary products are difficult to recycle as they contain a mixture of materials. Around 87% of European pads and tampons end-up in the dump. In the United States, that number is around 80%. Many times, the products are improperly incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
It is difficult to know how much trash goes to the trash pile in countries that don’t have a strong trash collection system. But sanitary products often find their way into rivers, onto beaches, and onto the side of the road. The chemicals and microplastics in these items leach into the soil and water and pose a threat to human, animal and environmental health.
Despite the environmental costs, there is still a growing demand for these single use products. They were popularized in the West at the end of World War II.
In 2018, the global market for tampons was valued at $44.45 trillion (40.4 billion). That number is expected to rise.
Asia Pacific, which is expected to see the largest growth in this market between 2020-2025, is seeing a growing demand for sanitary napkins. Analysts believe that this is partly due to government initiatives to combat the lack of access to period products as well as rapid urbanization.
These products are very popular because of the fact that pads were not really made for women in the past, according to Supriya Garikipati (a gender economist at Liverpool University in Britain).
Garikipati says that “most people used a clothpad that they would make at their home.” However, poorer women used rags, hay or mud or any other materials that are not intended for use in that area.
Disposable products are more convenient for those who have access to them. Disposable products are more discreet and can be hidden better, which is especially important for places where “period shame” is still an issue. According to estimates, one in ten Sub-Saharan African girls misses school due to the stigma attached menstruation.
Even so, as environmental impacts become more evident, people with the means have been increasingly turning to reusable menstrual items.
The rise of sustainable alternatives
Around a century ago, menstrual cups were first patented in the USA. The invention really took off in Europe and the US around 2000. Other products followed suit with reusable, washable underwear and period liners all becoming popular. The global period underwear market, for example, is set to grow from $67.2 million (61.2 million) in 2017 to $279.3 million (254.4 million) by 2026.
Despite the explosion in options available, approximately 500 million people live in low-income areas and remote locations and are affected by period poverty.
They tend to purchase single-use tampons or pads when they can, as they are more easily available and less expensive. A three-pack of reusable underwear in Germany costs about 90 while a 32-pack costs 5. Although reusable items can be cheaper if they are used over a long time, many people cannot afford to spend that much money in one go.
Multi-use alternatives are an option for those who have the means to switch. They produce less waste and are more affordable. The menstrual cup may last up to 10 years. Washable pads can last up to five years if they are rotated with about 10 pads. Each pair of period underwear can be reused for up to two years.
Reusable products are not sustainable.
After each use, they must be washed with clean water. According to the Environmental Impact Report, factors such as water temperature, detergent use, and drying method can have an impact on the environmental impact of reusable items like underwear or reusable pads. Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The study found that menstrual cups perform best when heated in water using a kettle or closed pot. It also shows efficiency.
There are also concerns over how safe reusable items really are. In 2020, a reporter from the US environmental Non-profit Sierra Club magazine “Sierra”,Her period underwear was sent to a Notre Dame University nuclear physicist. He discovered PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, at “high levels”.
PFAS can build up in our bodies. Although little is known about the effects of PFAS, it has been linked to cancer and fertility problems.
Health issues have also been linked to single-use products. Tampons are linked to toxic shock syndrome, which can be fatal and can be caused by bacteria entering the body. While some research by women’s health organizations found carcinogens like dioxin, other studies show that the levels are not enough to be of concern.
Organisations, including the UK-based Women’s Environmental Network, are calling for stricter regulation and legal standards regarding period products. This includes requiring manufacturers to list all ingredients.
The road to greener times
Despite some of the problems they face, governments are now open to the new age in period products. For instance, the Kerala state government in India tried giving away 5,000 menstrual cups free of charge after a monsoon when the pads began floating in the flood waters.
This is a sign to Supriya Garikipati of a change.
Garikipati stated that five years ago, there was a lot resistance to introducing alternatives. “I’m hopeful that the slippery slope has begun.” “Officially, disposable pads that are commercially manufactured are still very useful, but I believe these shifts will ensure that periods can be sustained and affordable in the future.”
Helen Lynn, a WEN campaigner, says that it is not enough to give away free products. However, this will “make the switch more rapid.” Education is key.
Lynn stated that women, girls, and menstruating women must be educated about how to use and care and why they are a better option for health, equity and the environment.