Why Pads and Tampons are Bad for The Environment
4 August 2021 | Admin
‘Plastic laden period protection including pads, tampons and their applicators are blocking our sewers, washing up on our beaches, polluting our oceans and killing marine life. That’s disgusting.’
‘Hold on...Pants that you bleed into? With no other protection? Really? How does that work? Are't you just sitting in a puddle of blood then? That’s disgusting.’
How many pads does a woman use in her lifetime?
Every woman uses an average of 11,000 single use pads or sanitary products over their lifetime, which is an incredible amount of waste.
How much waste do period products produce?
Over the last 40 years, we've been conditioned by big companies that throwaway period products such as tampons and disposable pads are 'normal' and convenient. However as we’re appreciating more and more, that ‘convenience’ has a HUGE eco impact.
Just in the UK, between 1.5 and 2 BILLION items of period waste are produced and then flushed down our toilets. These, along with wipes combine to create the disgusting fatbergs that we’ve seen in documentaries like ‘Blue Planet’ and programmes such as ‘War on Plastic’.
According to the Marine Conservation Society an average of 4.8 pieces of single use period protection were found on every 100 metres of UK beach during their beach cleans. Imagine a child topping their sand castle with a used sanitary towel!
Are pads or tampons worse for the environment?
Pads are worse than tampons for the environment for the simple fact that they are larger and use more material, although some tampons also come with a plastic applicator which is far from ideal. This has a knock on impact all throughout the supply chain, from materials used, to shipping costs and then of course the volume of waste produced.
That doesn't even take into account the eco-impact of the single use plastic packaging that they're wrapped in.
It's no fun being ‘on’. It's bad enough in the week before, with hormonal shifts and potential mood swings, carb cravings, maybe a little bit of insomnia thrown into the mix? And then your period arrives and if you're lucky you get away with a few cramps and some general achiness. If not, it's flooding, clots, being doubled over with cramps and potentially waking up in a bloodbath.
As if that's not enough, we then often add insult to injury with the products which we use during our period.
No matter whether you're grown up enough to call your vulva by it's name, or prefer noo-noo, fanny, flower, front bottom, lady parts, we pay for the 'convenience' of single use products by giving our sensitive areas a fairly hard time.
Problems that disposable pads & tampons can cause:
- Nappy rash from pads rubbing the tops of your thighs
- Accidental bikini wax from the glue on disposable pads pulling your pubes
- Tampon strings getting caught between your knickers and legs
- Recurrent thrush
- Toxic shock syndrome
Disposable Period Protection - a bad habit?
First experiences tend to stay with us and in general, the products that we are first introduced to will stay with us - because that's just what we do.
As a child of the 70’s my introduction to periods was a furtive conversation with my Mum, then at a later date a packet of disposable sanitary pads were shoved my way, topped up each month when Mum did her big shop.
That's not forgetting the ‘Tampax Lady’ of course, who came to school and talked a bit more about what periods were and how tampax worked and then gave us some to take home. I remember sobbing in my bedroom, in tears due to both annoyance and embarrassment, because I couldn't get the damn things in.
These formative experiences and products tend to stay with us and we don't really question our choices, plodding along each month using the same products that we have always used. Unless something happens to make us question those choices, such as our body changing after children etc.
Isn’t it about bloody time to revisit our period habits?
I know that as a household we aren't alone in revisiting our choices with the spectre of climate change on the horizon. Many of us are trying to eat more veg / eat less meat, recycling where we can, choosing items with less packaging, or more eco friendly products when we can.
This focus on climate change and living more sustainably has created a demand for new products. These products will reduce the environmental impact of our periods but more importantly, make our ‘time of the month’ a damn sight easier and more comfortable.
So what are these more environmentally friendly options?
What are the alternatives to disposable pads and tampons?
The alternatives to disposable pads and tampons are:
- Menstrual cups
- Reusable Sanitary Pads or Period Pads
- Period Pants
Menstrual cups have been around for almost 20 years, and are simply medical grade silicone cups, inserted into your vagina like a tampon. They open and collect blood which is simply flushed down the loo and the cup is washed out and reused. Many people swear by them, however after having kids, some people find that their bodies change and internal period protection is no longer appropriate or comfortable for them.
Reusable Sanitary Pads
Reusable Sanitary Pads are a cracking alternative to disposable menstrual pads. If you’re an disposable pad user it should be a really simple swap for you, subbing out sweaty, plasticky pads for comfy reusable pads which are super absorbent and can simply be chucked in the washing machine and reused.
However the new kid on the block, Period Pants are (rightly) being heralded as a game changer.
You’ve got to be bloody joking? I’ve looked at period pants and they’re £25 a pair!
There are lots of period pants on the market, priced from under a tenner to almost £30. They pretty much all work in the same way (despite any gimmicky advertising claims):
- Comfy ‘stay-dry’ moisture wicking layer next to your skin, normally cotton or bamboo
- Absorbent layers, absorbing menstrual blood
- Anti-Leak Waterproof layer, preventing leaks
- Outer layers come in a variety of fabrics, from cotton which are brilliant for sports, right through to control type fabrics
Cheeky Pants start from £11 a pair and work just as well as the biggest brands of period underwear - see our Trustpilot reviews! We have a range of styles, from high-waisted period pants to heavy flow period pants and come with a 90 day love them or your money back guarantee.
'I only wear these pants now every single day since a back operation left me liable to dribble where and when I don't want to. They are amazing. Never let me down yet which is such a relief, literally, especially when I'm teaching yoga. They are comfy, not bulky and they wash superbly well. I've had some for at least 5 years. So great that I don't have to crackle in paper pants nor clog up the planet with single use. I have no grumbles, only praise. I bought my brother the male version and his are just as good. Yay CP!' Kaznard, Trustpilot
Things to consider when choosing period pants
Lots of companies will state how many ‘ml’ pants will hold. However the testing for period pants absorbency looks at how much liquid the whole absorbent area of the pants will hold over a defined period of time.
In real life however, fluid generally tends to settle over one area and can come out as a trickle or a gush. Generally, the more layers of absorbent material and differences in fabrics will determine how absorbent the pants are and pants tend to come with 4 or 5 layers of material as standard.
There is an exception to this which is when you’re sleeping. Most brands only have absorbency in the gusset of your knickers which is absolutely no bloody use when you sleep and change position from your front to your back.
Look for brands such as Cheeky Pants period briefs which have absorbency to the front and rear waistband as standard means that you'll sleep well without fear of waking up in a puddle.
Reusable products are definitely a more expensive up front option when compared to buying pads or tampons at £3 or £4 a packet. Looked after however they will last you for many years. And there’s definitely a positive trade off in paying for comfort.
In addition, parents of teens or tweens are seeing the benefits of this type of period pants for their children or teens. No anxiety about going to school when they’re ‘on’, simply different knickers that they wear for those few days. Simples.
Blood in your washing machine though? That's disgusting.
Fun fact of the day #1. Your entire period is usually between 5 teaspoons and 14 teaspoons of blood. Each pair of period pants will only need to hold a few teaspoons and as most washing machines use around 50 litres of water per cycle, that blood is heavily diluted and washes away easily.
Fun fact of the day #2 - Washing in warm or hot water will ‘set’ bloodstains
Not a lot of people know this, but blood is a protein stain, like an egg white. As soon as you apply heat to it (like a 40c wash), you will set the stain. Runny at room temperature, set when it is heated. All bloodstains should be washed at 30c or less, which is better for the environment anyway!
Caring for reusable period protection is easy, whether that’s reusable sanitary pads or period pants. Cool wash (30c or less) on a decent length wash cycle (generally a rapid wash won’t work here) along with your usual washing detergent and a scoop of Oxi type stain remover which is eco-friendly too. We find a cold water soak makes washing even easier, but throwing them into the wash will work too.
Now that you’ve learned a little more about period pants and reusable period protection, what do you think? Has it persuaded you to change your period habits and try them out yourself, or would you consider them for your child?
About the Author: Helen Rankin is the founder of Cheeky Wipes & Cheeky Pants, who have been championing ‘Simple Reusables’ since 2008. With 4 kids of her own, she appreciates that switching to reusable alternatives needs to be easy and along with her crack team, developed the ‘reusable period protection questionnaire’ to assist in making the swap.
Helen spends most of her days talking about poo, pee and periods and loves to bust taboos. The business was recognised with a Queens Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development in 2021, celebrating their hard work over the last 13 years.