Illustration by Katie Horwich
The average menstruating person has their first period between the ages of around 11-15, which will continue until menopause at about age 51. With a typical period lasting 4-8 days, this can lead to a lot of plastic waste over a lifetime!
Single-use sanitary pads and non-organic tampons are the most accessible and most popular menstrual products in the UK. In some parts of the world, pads may be the most popular or only choice, due to cultural or religious taboos.
So, what’s the problem with period plastic?
A staggering 4.3 billion menstrual products are used annually, in the UK alone, generating 200,000 tonnes of waste per year!!! This equates to around 200 kilograms of waste per menstruating person’s lifetime! (AHMPA, 2018). This waste ends up in landfill, or down the toilet.
A standard, non-organic sanitary pad may take between 500-800 years to break down, and won’t full biodegrade due to the large amounts of plastic (Potter, 2016).
Tampons are quicker to biodegrade due to being made mostly from natural materials like cotton, taking about 6 months. However, most brands use plastic within wrappers, applicators, and even within the tampon and string (Potter, 2016).
The problem with these estimates, however, is that these are based on tests in laboratory conditions, and so it is likely that these predictions are inaccurate since oxygen availability is poorer in landfills, and so degradation is unlikely (Langston, 2010).
Polyethylene, which many pads and tampons contain, can be broken down by photodegradation (due to light), but this becomes almost impossible when items are buried in landfill (Lapidos, 2007).
This is not the fate of all menstrual products, however, as many are disposed of incorrectly by being flushed down toilets, making their way into our oceans and waterways. There has been a reported increase in menstrual products found during beach cleans, according to the Marine Conservation Society (Cooper, 2018). Here, they may cause direct harm to marine life by ingestion, entanglement, or other injuries, or they may break down into smaller pieces or microplastics.
Microplastics are plastics smaller than 5mm, capable of causing serious harm to marine life and human health (Oosterhuis et al, 2014), and reported to be found in even the most remote marine habitats (Wright et al, 2013).
Microplastics can be easily ingested by species at low trophic levels (low on the food chain), which can lead not only to internal damage and blockages, but bioaccumulation can occur – if consumed by larger organisms, the level of internal microplastics builds, moving up the food chain, reaching potentially harmful levels (Cole et al, 2011), and even entering the human diet.
Not only are traditional disposable, plastic-based menstrual products environmentally costly - they can be expensive, and bad for our bodies too.
The average cost per year, per person is between £128 and £492 (for menstrual products, pain relief, new underwear etc). Over a lifetime (based on 450 menstruations), this can lead to an average cost of between £4500 and £18,450 (Moss, 2015; Lee, 2018).
So, what are the alternatives to traditional menstrual products?
Reusable sanitary products, whilst having grown in popularity in recent years, are not a new trend. In fact, before production of modern products became available, women fashioned their own pads from whatever fabric they could access, which would often be washed and reused.
Let’s explore some of the products available today – don’t worry, no DIY involved!
Menstrual cups – these are small, reusable funnel-shaped cups made of flexible silicone or rubber. They can hold a surprisingly large amount of blood and can be worn for up to 12 hours before needing emptied! There are loads of brands out there, such as Moon Cup or DivaCup – there’s even a website to find the product best suited to you – putacupinit.com
- Affordable – around £15-30, a one-time purchase
- Safer than tampons – almost no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome
- Hold more blood than tampons/pads so require less changing
- Better than the environment – zero waste!
- Great for sports/exercise/swimming
- Can be difficult to insert/remove and require practice
- Sometimes messy!
- If not properly cleaned, they can lead to irritation, and they may need lubrication
Glasgow University students can also benefit from FREE menstrual cups from the QMU or the SRC!
Reusable sanitary pads – cloth pads are made from natural fibres, and are washable! You’ll need to buy a set of pads, so you always have a clean one whilst the others are in the wash, and to account for different flow levels!
- Better for your body – free from artificial fragrances, plastic, chemical gels and adhesives, which can all be irritating to the body
- Less ‘sweaty’ feeling than normal pads
- Reduced smell, and no need to dispose of used products after each use (which some may find embarrassing). They're also much quieter than plastic-wrapped pads!
- Better for the environment – plastic free and made of natural fibres!
- Costing around £4 per pad (multipacks are available and cost £15-25), they are far more economical
- There are loads of independent, small businesses who make cloth pads – so if you don’t like giving your money to large, faceless corporations – check out marketplaces like Etsy for loads of options!
- If cared for correctly, cotton pads are just as sanitary as traditional pads
- So many different styles and patterns are available
- Require washing and drying, which may be more time consuming and impractical
- Can be bulkier than traditional pads
- Some may find it awkward or less socially acceptable to use or wash the products, especially if in shared/family accommodation
- Less convenient
Period pants – leakproof underwear made of specially designed fabric to absorb and wick away fluid comfortably. Popular brands include THINX and Modibodi.
- Ideal for those days leading up to or at the end of your period, in case of unexpected leaks or spotting! Or, for back-up protection in case of an extra heavy flow when wearing a tampon
- Very handy for travelling
- Thinner than pads, and comfier!
- More discreet than pads or tampons, especially in public bathrooms
- Available in different styles – even thongs and swimwear!
- As with cloth pads, there is the added inconvenience of washing and drying – however these are more discrete and socially acceptable as they look like regular underwear!
- On heavy flow days, another form of protection such as a tampon may be needed, or a second pair of pants to change during the day
- The pants can be fairly pricey, at around £25-40
Fun fact – when rinsing your cloth pad or period underwear (before using detergents), the water left over can be used as fertiliser for your plants!
Organic cotton non-applicator tampons – if you aren’t convinced by the products above, brands such as Cora provide tampons made of 100% cotton which are biodegradable and compostable, and have no plastic applicator. The brand also donates a one month supply of menstrual products and education to girls in developing countries for every box purchased!
- Smaller and easier to carry around
- Less waste than applicator tampons
- Better control of the position of the tampon during insertion, so can feel more comfortable
- Messier than applicator tampons, as you’ll need to use a finger for insertion
- Can be tricker to insert
There are so many alternatives available, with brands and styles to suit every body type and preference. Ditching period plastic has never been so easy!
Hey folks! Lauren (SeaSoc President) here to share my experience of making the switch to plastic-free periods!
After feeling guilty about the amount of plastic waste used each month, I decided to make the switch to a reusable, zero waste alternative – after some research I decided on a Moon Cup – which, after a few messy failed attempts and several practice cycles, I now love!
So, here’s some answers to the most frequently asked questions I’ve had when speaking to others about menstrual cups!
1. Isn’t it messy?
In short – yes, they can be. For my first few cycles, I only used the cup when at home, as I was too scared to change it in public for fear of making a mess or spillages! It’s really a case of trial and error (and lots of hand-washing). With practice, you’ll find the method of insertion/removal that works best for you, and you’ll soon find the cup to be no messier than tampons or pads.
2. Can it overflow?
Yes – but only on the heaviest days of your cycle, if you don’t empty it enough. However, you’d be surprised how little blood you actually produce, and I find on the heaviest days the cup only needs emptied 2-3 times – less frequently than tampons need changed!
3. Doesn’t it create a suction?
Nope – there are small holes around the rim which prevents this, but they don't let any blood through. The cup will seal once fully inserted, and for removal, simply fold the edge to break this.
4. Isn’t it unhygienic? How do you wash it?
During the cycle, a rinse with fresh water and a quick wash with gentle soap is usually enough to prevent bacteria, stains or odour building up. At the beginning and end of each cycle, the cup should be boiled in water for several minutes. Easy!
5. Is it hard to insert? Can you feel it once inserted?
Admittedly, yes – during the first few uses it can be very difficult and frustrating to insert and remove. Lubrication is recommended for the first few uses or for lighter flows. But do persevere as insertion and removal gets much easier with practice! As long as you insert it correctly, you won’t feel the cup at all – even less than a tampon! Always read the information leaflets that come with the cup for specific tips and safety information.
6. Can it get lost up there?
No. Your cervix at the end of the vaginal canal won’t let anything pass through, except sperm. Even if it feels 'stuck', a combination of using your vaginal muscles and some pinching/wiggling of the cup make the process of removing the cup much easier!
Periods are a miserable enough time without the added guilt of plastic pollution - so how about making the switch to a more environmentally friendly alternative? Your wallet and body will thank you too!
1. Moss, R. (2015). Women Spend More Than £18,000 on Having Periods in Their Lifetime, Study Reveals. The Huffington Post UK. Available online: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/03/women-spend-thousands-on-periods-tampon-tax_n_8082526.html
2. Potter, A. (2016). Menstrual Cups and Period Underwear Review: Welcome to the Undieworld. Choice. Available online: https://www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/reproductive-health/womens-health/articles/menstrual-cups-and-period-underwear
3. Langston, N. (2010). Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES; Yale University Press: Newhaven, CT, USA. [Google Scholar]
4. Lapidos, J. (2007). Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507? How Scientists Figure Out How Long It Takes Your Trash to Decompose. Available online: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2007/06/do-plastic-bags-really-take-500-years-to-break-down-in-a-landfill.html
5. Cooper, K.L. (2018). The People Fighting Pollution with Plastic-Free Periods. BBC News. Available online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-43879789
9. Lee, G., (2020). Period Poverty Is Real. But The Average Woman Isn’T Spending £500 A Year On Menstruation. [online] Channel 4 News. Available at: <https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/period-poverty-is-real-but-the-average-woman-isnt-spending-500-a-year-on-menstruation>
10. AHMPA (2018) Via: London Assembly. Single-use Plastics: Unflushables. Available: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/plastics_unflushables_-_submited_evidence.pdf