These days sustainability is all the rage, and for good reason. Plastic, waste and chemicals are threatening to devour our nature; you could even argue it already has. From our place of privilege, the damage isn’t always as visible. But along the coasts, mountains of plastic are growing. Outside of the cities, landfills are struggling to keep up. We see how man-made trash is killing biodiversity and toxifying our soil. In an attempt to reverse the damage, a lot of companies are starting to reimagine their production in order to become eco-friendly. But the femcare industry is still lacking.

What’s in your period products
Have you given thought to the sheer amount of plastic that touches base with your vagina throughout a lifetime? We bet you’ll be surprised. During the 40 or so years you’ll be menstruating, you’ll go through, on average, 15.000 pads, tampons and panty liners. If you multiply that with just the womxn in your life that you know are menstruating, the numbers are starting to add up. In one day, 1,4 million pads, 2,5 million tampons and 700 thousand panty liners get flushed down the toilet. That’s a lot of period products.

You might never have thought about this, but a pad is usually almost entirely plastic. Actually, one pad contains the equivalent of up to four plastic bags worth of plastic. Most times there’s little to no actual cotton in the absorbent part of the pad. It’s all a synthetic fabric sitting on a plastic bottom to prevent bleeding through. In many cases the wrapper is made of plastic as well. Tampons are also a big consumer of plastic, as it is often woven into the cotton to make a denser structure. The applicator and the braided string is often also made from plastic. When a tampon or a pad like this ends up in nature, it will take at least 500 years for it to start decomposing. 800 would probably be a closer guess.

If you have thought about the plastic in your period products, and wanted to avoid it, you might have gone for products that are labelled ‘plant-based plastic applicators’ or just ‘plant-based’. But these words can be deceiving. They are a clever marketing strategy, and some companies use them because they know that these days sustainability sells. You see, plastic can be derived from both fossil and organic sources. No matter the main ingredient, after the refining-process has been completed, the end product is polyethylene or polypropylene, which is the kind of plastic you see in everyday items all around you. It’s equally polluting, and neither kind is biodegradable nor compostable. Furthermore, only 20 percent of the ingredients in plastic need to be from organic origin for it to be labelled ‘plant-based’. The remaining 80 percent of the ingredients can stem from fossil fuels without the consumers ever knowing. These labels give the false sense of security that buying these products won’t harm the environment. 

What about cotton?
After reading that first part, cotton sounds much more innocent than plastic. In many ways it is, but it’s not entirely unproblematic either. Unless it’s organic, cotton is one of the worst offenders when it comes to polluting our soil and groundwater, as lots of pesticide and insecticide is used in the production. After harvesting, cotton often goes through a bleaching process in order to kill off bacteria and fungi remnants. It’s a chemical process that releases dioxins and furans, which are considered highly dangerous to humans. Cotton production also takes a toll on water-usage, as there goes an estimated 20.000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton.

Living a life of sustainability is hard. Decades of consumerism has resulted in plastic being everywhere, from packaging to the products themselves. Steering clear of it can be a challenge, and in some cases it’s almost impossible. For a long time, this was the case in femcare. The average pad, tampon or panty liner is packed full of plastic, yet most people don’t give second thoughts to using them. This is mainly due to the lack of alternatives on the market that are eco-friendly, as innovation in the femcare sector has been stagnant for a long time. That gap in the market is now being challenged by new players who are introducing sustainable alternatives to the traditional femcare products. If you want to be a part of the change, there’s a way:

  • Choose eco-certified organic cotton tampons and pads, that aren’t wrapped in plastic.
  • Buy tampons with cardboard applicators
  • Choose reusable options like a silicone menstrual cup or period panties that are made from natural fabrics.
  • Avoid flushing your used pads and tampons.