How Sustainable are Reusable Period Products?
Words by Millie Smith
Throughout recent years, we have learnt about the many downsides to single-use, plastic period products. Countless businesses have altered their product offerings to include reusable alternatives, perhaps even discontinuing the single-use product. Government regulations are continuously evolving to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill. Period products are no exception. But how sustainable are reusable period products when they reach the end of their usable life?
Since the invention of the first commercial tampon in 1930, single-use period products have taken popularity, despite menstrual cups being invented around the same time (Peberdy, Jones & Green 2019, P. 2). Reusable menstrual products have only seen a strong resurgence since the late 1970s, peaking interest within the last 10 years. Reusable options such as menstrual cups and period underwear have become increasingly popular due to the many environmental movements and pressures sweeping the globe.
- An average menstruating individual uses around 22 disposable sanitary products PER PERIOD (Shine 2020)
- Menstruating individuals use between 10,000 and 16,000 single-use sanitary products in their lifetime, which can take over 500 years to break down (Shine 2020)
- That means that around 13,000 used sanitary products per menstruating individual worldwide are left on our earth for over 500 years.
It has been surmised by many businesses and individuals that the solution to this problem is to use alternative products that can be reused. However, there are two slight discrepancies with this thinking.
- Not all single use period products are made from plastic
- Reusable products don’t last forever
It is important to note that commonly conducted research in this area compares silicone menstrual cups to conventional synthetic, plastic-wrapped tampons and pads. But not all pads and tampons are equal! Certain period products can be made from up to 90% plastic, whereas others are made from biodegradable organic cotton and wrapped in recyclable paper (UNEP 2021).
The typical ingredients for menstrual cups are flexible medical-grade silicone, thermoplastic isomer or latex. Menstrual cups can last for several years, some up to 10 years, but many brands suggest replacement after 2 years. Silicone is the hybrid combination of synthetic rubbers and synthetic plastic polymers (Vrachovska n.d.). It is recyclable, but only when sent to a specialised recycling centre. Because of its durability, which makes it attractive throughout its useful life, it is extremely tough and doesn’t break down without external assistance. Silicone doesn’t break down into smaller pieces like plastic. Silicone is safer than plastic if it ends up in an environment where wildlife or ocean life could consume it. However, the decomposition of silicone products can take between 50 and 500 years, and much research is inconclusive on a rough deadline (Vrachovska n.d.).
Period undies can be made from a variety of materials including synthetic fibres, bamboo and cotton (Peberdy, Jones & Green 2019, p. 2). Period underwear lasts for roughly 2 years, but similar to menstrual cups cannot be easily recycled. The most important consideration for the environment when purchasing period undies is what material they are made from. Synthetic materials can release microplastics when they are washed at a high temperature which are the leading source of ocean microplastics (Kale 2021; De Falco et al. 2019). Throughout the life cycle of period undies, they are likely to leech harmful microplastics into our oceans before becoming textile waste when they are no longer useful. Period undies cannot be donated to be reused at the end of their life, and only certain textile recycling facilities will take them. Unfortunately, most Australians dispose of 23kgs of clothing in general waste bins annually (DCCEEW 2021). Textile waste can release toxic gases, carbon dioxide, methane, microplastics and chemicals used to manufacture the clothes when left to rot in landfill.
Whilst using menstrual cups will significantly reduce the volume of waste going to landfill compared to using conventional plastic period products that can take up to 800 years to biodegrade, the menstrual cup will continue to exist in landfill or the general environment for hundreds of years to come.
Period undies can also significantly reduce menstrual product waste destined for centuries in landfill but can also severely negatively impact our oceans throughout their lifecycle through microplastics. There is the additional challenge of where period undies go when they get thrown ‘away’ at the end of their useful life.
The solution…biodegradable organic cotton period products.
Organic cotton period products that are 100% biodegradable in home compost environments can biodegrade within one month without releasing or leaving behind any harmful chemicals, residues or greenhouse gases. No nasty microplastics from period undies, and no durable plastic cups sitting in landfill.
Both lines from TABOO are biodegradable - shop or subscribe here to bleed responsibly!
- Bode, L 2019, ‘Women On Average Spend $9379 On Their Period Throughout Their Lifetime’, Australian Women’s Health, 29 November, <https://www.womenshealth.com.au/average-cost-of-period>.
- De Falco, F, Di Pace, E, Cocca, M and Avella, M 2019, The contribution of washing processes of synthetic clothes to microplastic pollution, Scientific Reports, 9, 6633.
- Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water 2021, Clothing textiles waste, Australian Government, <https://www.dcceew.gov.au/environment/protection/waste/product-stewardship/textile-waste-roundtable#:~:text=Annually%20Australian's%20acquire%20an%20average,reduce%20textiles%20waste%20to%20landfill>.
- Kale, S 2021, ‘Menstruation: The rise of period pants: are they the answer to menstrual landfill - and women’s prayers?’, The Guardian, 1 September, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/sep/01/the-rise-of-period-pants-are-they-the-answer-to-menstrual-landfill-and-womens-prayers>.
- Peberdy, E, Jones, A and Green, D 2019, A study into public awareness of the environmental impact of menstrual products and product choice, Sustainability, 11(2), p. 473.
- Shine, T 2020, How To Save Your Planet One Object At A Time, Simon & Schuster, London.
- United Nations Environment Programme 2021, 'Single-use menstrual products and their alternatives: Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments', UNEP, <https://www.lifecycleinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/UNEP-LCI-Single-use-vs-reusable-Menstrual-Products-Meta-study.pdf>.
- Vrachovska, M n.d., ‘Is Silicone Biodegradable Or Recyclable?’, Almost Zero Waste, <https://www.almostzerowaste.com/does-silicone-break-down/>.