The average woman will throw away between 10,000 and 15,000 pads or tampons in her lifetime. That means about 20 billion menstrual products end up in landfills every year in North America alone. But it’s not individuals’ menstrual waste that makes the period industry bad for the environment, it’s the industry’s harvesting of cotton and production of chemical-filled disposables.
Cotton is known as “the thirstiest crop” due to its water-intensive farming process. Pads contain polyethylene plastic and most tampons contain chemicals like chlorine, dioxin, and rayon. These chemicals are harmful pollutants that get released into the air and groundwater when they’re thrown in landfills. What’s more? It takes most period products centuries to degrade. That means your used pad will outlive you and your grandchildren.
While real environmental change will happen on the production end of the period industry, we as consumers can force this change by “voting with our wallets,” or making economic decisions that value the environment. We’ve compiled a list of environmentally friendly (or friendlier) options for your time of the month.
- Menstrual Cups. (Divacup, Lunette) Menstrual cups are silicone bell-shaped cups that you insert into your vagina to collect menstrual fluid. They don’t leak, can be worn overnight, and only require changing a few times every day. They can also last a decade if you take care of them properly. Menstrual cups do not contain any of the chemicals typically found in commercial tampons and pads, and they are silicone, not plastic. Silicone is made from silica, a type of sand and the second most abundant mineral on Earth. When silicone degrades, it returns to its former state as silica. Another reason you can feel good about using a menstrual cup? By using one for ten years, you can reduce your waste by one full truckload. Yup—that’s a lot of period waste.
- Menstrual Discs. (Softdisc, Flex) Menstrual discs are like shallow, disposable menstrual cups that fit a little differently inside the body. While menstrual cups sit in the vaginal canal and stay by force of suction, menstrual discs sit in the fornix (the opening of the vaginal canal) and are held in place by vaginal muscles and the placement of your pubic bone. They can also be worn during sex. They’re chemical and bleach-free and can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time. Menstrual discs are disposable, so they won’t reduce your footprint as much as a menstrual cup, but they can help you reduce your menstrual waste overall.
- Period Panties. (Thinx, Dear Kate) Period panties are absorbent underwear made to collect and retain menstrual fluids. They can be rinsed out and washed with the rest of your laundry. They’re more expensive than regular underwear, and you’ll need a few pairs to cover each cycle, but they last several years and are one of the most comfortable options on the market.
- Reusable Pads and Tampons. (GladRags, Lunapads, independent sellers on Etsy) Reusable pads are cloth pads that usually come in two parts: one winged pad container (which looks like any winged pad) and several inserts that absorb menstrual fluid throughout the day. You can order the inserts in different levels of thickness for different levels of absorbency, and you can wash them by rinsing with cold water and throwing them in the washing machine. Reusable tampons can be found through independent sellers. They’re usually knit, sewn, or crocheted from a highly-absorbent cloth, and can be rinsed out and washed like a reusable pad.
- Sea Sponge. Sea sponges—yes, the porous yellow creatures that grow in the ocean—can actually be used as all-natural tampons. They’re biodegradable and chemical-free, and they last between three months and a year. Just insert like an applicator-free tampon and wash every three hours for continued use. Find them online or at health food stores.
- Organic Pads and Tampons. (Natracare, Maxim produce pads, Lola) Organic pads and tampons, while still contributing to menstrual waste, do not contain the chemical pollutants in other commercial menstrual products that harm the earth. While most leading period product brands use chlorine and bleach in their products, chemicals that are ultimately released into the air and groundwater when they go to the landfill, these pads and tampons are 100% organic cotton. If you want to “green” your period but aren’t ready to make a drastic change, buying organic pads and tampons can be a small step in the right direction!