The impact of single-use menstrual hygiene products on climate change and more sustainable alternatives

by Magda Kalinowska

One needs only to consider the sheer magnitude of some relevant statistics to understand the wide-scale impact of single-use menstrual products on climate change.

  • An individual will use approximately 441 pounds of single-use menstrual products throughout their lifetime.1 This could potentially add up to a significant amount given that about 26% of the global population is menstruating.2
  • An estimated 19 billion single-use menstrual products are utilized and discarded each year in the United States.3  Most eventually end up in landfills, where it may take up to 500 years for their plastic components to decompose.4

Fossil fuels are used in producing the products’ components (e.g. organic cotton, plastic), and a significant amount of energy is used during manufacturing and transport.5 6 7 Clearly, there is a need for more sustainable ways of managing menstruation.8 9

Although younger generations have found it easier to discuss menstruation, it has been a taboo topic in many cultures.10 11 This makes it difficult to have open conversations about planet-friendly ways of managing menstruation.12 13 14 Currently there are numerous options available on the market, including single-use products like tampons and pads (also known as sanitary napkins), and reusables like menstrual cups and discs, pads, and period underwear.15 But these options are not available to everyone.16 Access to menstrual hygiene products, as well as clean water, adequate sanitation facilities, and health education, is not equally available around the world. The fact that such products are often significantly lacking in lower- and middle-income countries is known as “period poverty.”17 18

Sustainable products coming to forefront

Interest in sustainable menstrual products is growing as menstruators are becoming increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of single-use products.19 20  Even though the pad is currently the most widely used menstrual product around the world, this is predicted to change in the next decade with increasing acceptance and availability of reusable options. 21 22 23 24

To compare the environmental impact of different menstrual products, studies rely on life cycle assessment (LCA), a tool that considers all stages of a product, from raw materials used in the production of components to the end-of-life phase that includes disposal practices.25 26 27 28 29 These studies consistently show that consumer behavior around the type and quantity of products, as well how they’re used (such as sanitation practices) shapes the environmental impact of menstrual products. This presents an opportunity to reduce the impact through targeted education and guidance. By promoting awareness around best options and practices, individuals can be empowered to make informed decisions to reduce the overall environmental footprint of menstrual products.30 31

Environmental impact varies widely

Reusable menstrual products exhibit a significantly lower environmental impact compared to single-use products, with the menstrual cup consistently demonstrating the least environmental impact across multiple studies and different settings. 32 33 34 Period underwear follows as the second most eco-friendly option, followed by reusable pads.35

However, the environmental footprint of tampons and pads is subject to significant variation, depending on consumer behavior. Factors such as the frequency of product change, handwashing practices (assuming washing hands before and after using the product, as with tampons and menstrual cups), and disposal methods (utilizing a pad wrapper vs. toilet paper to wrap the product) can play crucial roles in determining whether the menstrual product is planet friendly or not. Thus, the sustainability of each option is linked to the conscientious choices and practices of menstruators.36 37

Raw materials used in components needed to produce single-use products, both organic and conventional tampons and pads, have the largest environmental impact. Conventional tampons and pads are made of viscose fiber, wood pulp and petroleum-based plastics. Organic tampons and pads mostly consist of organic cotton and may include plant-based or petroleum-based plastics used for the applicator, back sheet, wrapper and packaging.38 Carbon dioxide is generated as these components are produced, thus contributing to climate change. Additionally, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are emitted during organic cotton farming. The emissions from viscose production are higher compared to organic cotton production, thus contributing to the higher environmental impact of conventional tampons compared to organic tampons. Because organic pads require more cotton due to their size and often include plastic components, some studies found them to be the least climate-friendly option. Unfortunately, there are no LCA studies comparing tampons with an applicator to those without, as studies only looked at one or the other.39 40 41

A menstrual cup is a reusable product made from silicone rubber or medical grade silicone that collects and retains menstrual fluid. Since the lifetime of a menstrual cup can be anywhere from a few years to 10 years,42 43 there is a low environmental impact from the production and manufacturing process.

How the cup is maintained is responsible for most of its impact on the climate, with more than 95% of its impact resulting from the energy used during washing and sterilization.44 According to manufacturer’s specifications, a menstrual cup should be sterilized before first use and after completion of the menstrual period and washed with soap and water between uses.45 An LCA study assessed the impact of different sterilization methods —  either boiling the cup in a pan of water heated on a stove or pouring water boiled in a kettle over the cup in a container. In the stove scenario, the sterilization process had the largest climate change impact, whereas using the kettle method resulted in approximately 40% lower energy consumption. Thus, the kettle method required less electricity and generated lower CO2 emissions, resulting in significantly less impact on climate change. In this scenario, the soap used to wash the cup in-between sterilizing was the biggest contributor to its overall climate impact.46

The study further examined the implications of sterilizing the cup after every use compared to sterilization at the conclusion of each menstrual cycle.47 If done by boiling water on a stove, it would make the menstrual cup the second worst menstrual product in terms of environmental impact. However, if using a kettle to boil water, the menstrual cup would still be the best product, even with more frequent sterilization. Thus, with mindful use, the menstrual cup is the best product from the perspective of impact to climate.48

Similarly, washing reusable pads and period underwear at lower temperature, line drying, ensuring a fully-loaded washing machine, or hand washing in a minimal amount of water, lowers the overall environmental impact.49

It’s important to note that a person using a menstrual cup or another reusable product needs access to clean water and private sanitation facilities to clean these products regularly and access may not be equitable to all menstruators.50 51 52

Geographical context is an additional important consideration when comparing environmental impacts of menstrual products. A product that is locally made will have lower impact as raw materials can be sourced locally and packaging and transport requirements reduced.53 For example, MakaPad, produced locally in Uganda, was found to have lower environmental impact.54 In addition, local attitudes, social norms and cultural taboos may preclude use of the most climate friendly products, especially those used internally. 55 56 57

Overall, reusable menstrual products, especially menstrual cups, emerge as the most climate-friendly option and should be chosen by menstruators conscious of environmental impact whenever feasible. 58 59 60

Education can break down barriers

However, lack of awareness regarding the environmental impact of single-use menstrual products is a barrier to adoption of reusable products.61 In addition, the initial cost of reusable products can be challenging to some users, although studies estimate that the higher upfront cost only adds up to a fraction of the cost of single-use products over an individual’s lifetime.62 63 64 Beyond environmental and economic considerations, another important reason for adopting reusable menstrual products is the potential negative health impacts of single-use products, as many pads and tampons have been found to contain harmful substances, including carcinogens, neurotoxins, and hormone disruptors. 65 66 67 68

Magda Kalinowska is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization Team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.

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