Every day, millions of women around the world need to buy and use period products - and every day, millions of those products end up in landfills, or even worse, flushed into the ocean.
Since the first pack of tampons was stacked onto a pharmacy shelf in 1921, period products have become increasingly less sustainable. When the first tampon applicator was created it was made of cardboard and the cotton product it was encasing was free of any plastic material.
As science progressed, designers figured out how to make applicators more comfortable and how to make products more discreet and transportable - and the plastic-filled designs we know today were invented.
About 70% of women choose tampons as their go-to period product. With each woman using about 20 per cycle, that’s over 11,000 tampons in her lifetime.
In Ireland, it adds up to 700,000 period products ending up in our landfills every day which can take over 1,000 years to decompose.
If products are flushed down the toilet, even more problems can occur, including the blockage of sewage pipes, the harming of marine life, and damage to wastewater treatment facilities.
“Tampons can be great but they’re one use only and there’s plastic in the applicator and in the packaging. They just aren’t eco-friendly,” says sexual education lecturer Dr Caroline West, who gives talks to students about period products.
When it comes to pads, even more plastic is used in the manufacturing process, between making the adhesive backing, the stretchy wings, and the plastic wrappings. Like tampons, their wrappers are often not accepted by recycling centres for hygiene reasons.
“Pads are 90% plastic and that all ends up in landfills, so people are moving more towards eco-friendly options,” says West.
Such options include reusable cotton pads which, like normal pads, come in different absorbancies and sizes, but they can be worn for up to eight hours and washed in the machine with your normal load.
“They can be fun too. There’s a woman in Cork who runs a page on Etsy called Handmade by Hedi and she makes ones with little kittens and unicorns on them. We should have a little bit of fun with our periods,” says West.
She’s also a fan of Irish site Sweet Lavender and Chilli Flakes, which sells similar designs. “You can get really cute designs and support small local businesses and you’re saving the planet. Cotton is also really good for your vaginal health.”
The reusable pads range from about €5 to €10 each and though you’ll need to stock up, you can do so slowly and they should last for a number of years, according to West.
Seeing as the average price of a pack of disposable period pads is about €3.99, you more than recoup the costs over time.
West’s preferred eco-friendly product, however, are period pants, which are reusable pairs of underwear that you wear in place of your normal underwear during your period - no tampon or pad required.
“I’m such a massive fan of period pants. They can be worn just like regular underpants for up to eight hours. There’s no insertion to deal with, they’re really great for playing sports because you don’t need to worry about a pad slipping out. You can also get special ones for going swimming,” she says.
The downside is that they can be expensive. Thinx period pants are currently on sale in Boots for €41.99, however you can also buy similar versions of the product from Anniepooh.ie, an Irish sustainability store, for as little as €17.99. “They are really great because you can just literally pull them on and go and they last for years.”
Menstrual cups are small, funnel-shaped reusable cups made of silicone or rubber that are inserted into the vagina to collect blood and washed every few hours, depending on your flow.
The major upside to the cups is that you only need one and they cost as little as €20 online or in some pharmacies. The downside, however, is that they can get a little taking used to.
“Menstrual cups are really great for some people and really impractical for others. People usually say it takes them a couple of cycles to get into the swing of it. People either hate the cup or they love it. They’re quite cheap so they’re really accessible and they’re very eco-friendly as well because they last years,” says West.
Though interest is growing in cups, the uptake has been slow, she says. “I think people are put off by the messy aspect of them. They can be quite fiddly to use at the start and you might get blood on your fingers. Some people might not want to wash them in a public bathroom. It might just be too much for people, which is fair enough.”
West says that the idea behind being ashamed to have your period blood seen by others often starts at a young age. “It goes back to your school days, it was the worst thing in the world if someone saw you take a pad out of your bag because everyone would know you were on your period.
“But it’s important to engage with your periods because even the blood changing colour could be a sign you should go to your doctor. They can tell you quite a lot about the rest of your body.”
For those who aren’t completely ready to make the transition to reusable period products, there are a few things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint every month.
You can shop for brands, such as Natracare, Flo, OHNE, and TOTM, that use organic and biodegradable materials in their pads and tampons and don’t bleach their products. Always also has a range of organic pads available in stores for €2.99. There are also reusable tampon applicators available, from brands like DAME, available online and in Boots for €35. Thinx also sells reusable applicators on its website for €51. For other sustainable period products see Irish online stores such as www.earthmother.ie, www.littlegreenshop.ie, and www.greenoutlook.ie.
Overall, West advises anyone looking to explore reusable options to just give the products a go.
“Try them out and see. It might not work for you but if you want to stick to your same methods there are eco-friendly options,” says West. “It’s better than putting all of those applicators in a bin.”