A Bloody Crisis: Impacts of Disposable Menstrual Waste and the Rise of The Cup

Photo credit

Written by: Electra Scott

I used to hate talking about periods. Getting my period, still in primary school, I feared when ‘that time of the month’ came around that someone would find out. I made Mum get tampons from the toiletries aisle and pretended they weren’t mine at the counter, for fear of embarrassment. I still don’t even know where you’re supposed to properly dispose of tampons at home, it’s not like there are sanitary bins. I guess I’m pretty lucky I use a menstrual cup now.

I began using ‘the cup’ when I realised how much waste I was creating using disposable sanitary products. In fact, I was better off without them. It is estimated the average woman uses over 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, leaving behind waste that will last longer than her own, and centuries longer when wrapped in plastic bags[1]. For one person this is a huge amount of waste that is, arguably, completely unnecessary.

During the 1980s, the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) was one of the first organisations to address the environmental problems posed by menstrual waste. WEN’s findings are as follows: disposing menstrual products via sewage systems can cause blockages and result in millions of plastic strips being dumped into oceans where they remain indefinitely, leading to visible pollution and endangering wildlife. Secondly, WEN found disposal of menstrual products via the rubbish system leads to non-biodegradable burdens reducing landfill space (although organic cotton tampons are technically biodegradable, some sources claim they do so extraordinarily slowly. However, this was difficult to back up with reputable sources). As a result of these findings, WEN recommends never flushing menstrual products[2]. Unfortunately, flushing is far too common. During the MCS Great British Clean 2018, on the 277 Scottish beaches included, 861 applicators and 3,179 sanitary pads were recovered[3].

When flushing, most women think of blockage, not the risk to the natural environment as that waste inevitably ends up in the ocean, and so flush anyway. Arguably, this is due to stigma surrounding periods, discouraging knowledge and education about dealing with period waste. Recently, Maria Guido wrote an article in the popular Scary Mommy blog addressing the fact she had only just learnt you were not meant to flush tampons down the toilet. Now in her forties, Maria had been doing so all her life. She also shared that her co-workers were also clueless or did know but chose to ignore it[4].

That said, according to a life cycle assessment of sanitary products overseen by Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, this is not the principal waste burden of disposable sanitary products. The processing of low-density polyethylene used in both applicators and sanitary pads requires large amounts of fossil-fuel generated energy and therefore is the biggest burden on the environment[5].

Photo credit

Though today disposable products are still most commonly used, current environmental trends have driven the popularity of reusable menstrual products, a favourite being the menstrual cup. Made of medical grade silicon, production of these cups has its own impact. However due to its intended lifespan being 5+ years, women can save 26.1kg CO2 equivalent every five years by choosing the cup over tampons[6]. Additionally, there will be a huge reduction in waste, and most importantly, no ocean pollution.

Change isn’t always easy, but sometimes it’s worth it.

[1] Rubli, S. (2015). 5 Reasons Why We Believe Menstrual Cups are an Ideal Solution for Women in Developing Communities. Retrieved fromhttps://www.femmeinternational.org/5-reasons-why-we-believe-menstrual-cups-are-an-ideal-solution-for-   women-in-developing-communities/

[2] Department of Conservation. (1996). Menstrual Waste in the Backcountry. Retrieved from https://www.doc.govt.nz/globalassets/documents/science-and-technical/sfc035.pdf

[3] Fischer, C. (2019). Sturgeon – reusable sanitary products will tackle pollution in Scottish seas. Retrieved from https://www.mcsuk.org/news/scotland_sturgeon_sanitary

[4] Guido, M. (2017, March 15). You Can’t Flush Tampons Down the Toilet – Mind. Blown[Scary Mommy].Retrieved from https://www.scarymommy.com/you-cant-flush-tampons-down-the-toilet-mind-blown/

[5] Mazgaj, M., Yaramenka, K., & Malovana, O. (2006). Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Sanitary Pads and Tampons. Stockholm, Sweden: Royal Institute of Technology.

[6] Wood, L. (2015, October 21). A Menstrual Cup? Is that what it sounds like? Gross [The Eco Guide]. Retrieved from https://theecoguide.org/menstrual-cup-what-sounds-gross