The Environmental Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products

I've always used cloth nappies on all five of my children and will use them for the sixth. Despite being only 18 when my first was born, I was keenly aware of the effect of my choices on the environment and I wanted her to have a planet to inherit from me after I was gone. For this reason, I never bought a single pamper. She was in a brand of cloth nappy that was then called 'Kooshies' right from day one.

Imagine my horror, then, when at almost 31 years of age I discovered that while I thought I was avoiding throw-away plastics, I had been using sanitary towels for myself every month and that these were loaded with plastic.

Disposable Sanitary Protection is 90% Plastic

It simply hadn't occurred to me that there was any plastic in the menstrual pads I used for my cycle. I was gutted that this obvious fact had escaped my notice. The truth is, that up to 90% of pads are made of plastic and that UK women throw away 200,000 tonnes of used tampons, pads and pantyliners every year. This ends up in landfills, in the seas and rivers and on our beaches where it poses a threat to wildlife and a health and safety hazard for the public. This is because many women flush their sanitary protection down the toilet when they are supposed to place them in a bin.

Beaches and Swimming in Used Sanitary Products

While parents flock to the seaside each year to spend quality time building sand castles with their children, they could be inadvertently playing near discarded sanitary protection. A beach cleaning effort in 2010 found that for every kilometre of British coastline, there were 23 pads and 9 tampons found.

Landfills Buckling Under the Weight of Sanitary Products

Burying them in landfill doesn't solve the problem, as biohazardous material can leak from used pads into the soil and groundwater and is a health risk to refuse workers. As pads are mainly plastic, they don't biodegrade and remain in the landfill indefinitely. 

Victorian Sewers Can't Cope with Sanitary Waste

Since the 2010's, sewers have become regularly blocked by sanitary products and other items that aren't meant to be flushed down the toilet. So common is the problem that it has been named 'Fatberg'. In 2017, a 250 metre long 'fatberg' was found blocking an east London sewer, weighing a staggering 130 tonnes. It contained items such as disposable nappies and sanitary wear, baby wipes and even condoms. The 19th century sewer tunnel in Whitechapel was no match for such items. Workers for the water company described the enormous fatberg being as 'tough as concrete'.

Reusable Sanitary Products Closed Down One Landfill

Switching to reusable sanitary products can make a world of difference. British women were up in arms when the government introduced what became known as 'tampon tax' and a few even demonstrated by 'free-bleeding' in public. Since disposable sanitary products have such a devastating effect on our planet I thought this outrage was misplaced. They would have done better to invest in mooncups or washable menstrual pads, rather than campaign for something that is robbing their daughters of a clean and healthy future.

Women in Germany have embraced reusable pads and the menstrual cup - a washable internal cup that catches blood flow - with more enthusiasm than their UK counterparts. In one small town, so many women were opting for reusable sanitary wear that the local landfill site closed down because they didn't have enough waste to stay open!  This really illustrates the power of making small modifications to ones lifestyle and how making seemingly minor changes can have a huge positive impact.

By buying washable sanitary products, you can make a real contribution to conservation and to the future of the next generation.

Sources: 

Why are we Seeing Red? Women's Environmental Network, Page Accessed 27/05/19.

Monster Fatberg Found Blocking East London Sewer, BBC News, 12 September 2017.

Landfill Forced to Shut Down Due to Lack of Tampon Waste, Rubycup, Accessed 27/05/19.