Clean Water and Sanitation

LET’S DISCUSS: Plastic Periods

What usually comes to our mind when we think of single use plastic’? Shopping bags, cigarettes, wet wipes, ready meals, crisp packets, water bottles, toiletries, cutlery; rarely would someone put menstrual hygiene products in the list. We spoke to Anushka, founder of PlastFree, who gave us the lowdown on why plastic has no place in your period...

Single use plastic, biodegradable, zero waste, sustainable, plastic free – all of these terms are
becoming increasingly popular these days. With the rise of environmental awareness and growth in
entrepreneurs who want to leave a better world behind for the next generation, we can see a shift in
the conversation of our purchasing habits.

What usually comes to our mind when we think of single use plastic’? Shopping bags, cigarettes, wet
wipes, ready meals, crisp packets, water bottles, toiletries, cutlery; rarely would someone put
menstrual hygiene products in the list. The harsh reality is that period products are voted to be the
fifth most common ocean polluters, and 90% of the ingredients in conventional sanitary pads and 6%
tampons are polymers! The most common are polyethylene, polypropylene (plastic applicator
tampons and sanitary pads, liners) and polyolefin (usually in dry weave top sheet). Glue is polymer
based too and the product packaging blatantly screams of the colourful plastic on the shop shelves.
It wasn’t the case in 1930’s when only cotton and cardboard applicators were used. Fifty years of
production of plastic based menstrual hygiene products has contributed significantly to plastic
pollution, as the average time one single pad takes to decompose is 500-800 years. So what we use
today will still be lying around for centuries from now

Menstrual products are not classified as medical devices and manufacturers are not legally obliged
to disclose data on packaging. The polymer ingredients mentioned earlier contribute majorly to
microplastic pollution. Tests confirm that glyphospate (found in weed killers and cotton possible
carcinogens), chlorine (used to bleach the cotton crop), dioxin (released as a result of bleaching), and
various endocrine disruptor chemicals, carcinogens and toxic chemicals are present in these non-
woven menstrual products as fragrances and cotton source. No other blood soaking product has
fragrance in them. Styrene has also been found in pads along with chloroform and chloroeathane,
both carcinogens.

Latest environmental problems that have been evident as a direct effect of using plastic menstrual
hygiene products are sewer blockages and beach pollution as a result of dumped waste found in the
oceans. It is damaging marine life and polluting beaches as well as shedding light on the ingredients
that goes into making what 33 million menstruators use in UK alone. Consumers have little voice in
this regard as it is the manufacturers who need to be more responsible for their actions. 4.3 billion
items are used in UK alone every year and can you imagine the waste it generates! In 2018 Water UK
said that 1.5-2 Billion menstrual items are flushed in Britain’s toilets, which causes 370,000 sewer
blockages. According to Lanes Group Plc, who conducted a survey of 1200 people, found that 46% of
women had flushed a tampon down the loo. According to surveys conducted by Water Research City to Sea, wipes are a key component of all sewer blockages 90% of the time and millions of panty
liners, tampons & pads are flushed into the sea every year. Period shaming and lack of knowledge
are considered as important factors of how women use and dispose of products.

From the age of 11-54 on average a woman goes through 11,000 period products, which is
equivalent to one bus full of waste. Over 70% of those items, like tampons, are flushed most of the time in the UK. Almost half of all women flush panty liners and 36% of the time sanitary pads are
flushed too. The result is that beach cleans often reveal significant amounts of discarded menstrual
products in the overall waste removed.

The ways to reduce the impact of period products would be to start with swapping those containing
plastic ones for organic and plastic free. The toxicity of the end product is much less in both
production and disposal. Organic sanitary pads like PLASTFREE are made with organic cotton top
sheet with a TCF (total chlorine free) process with no dioxins and chemicals. The absorbing core is
biodegradable SAP (super absorbent polymer) that can absorb 800 times its weight. This makes the
process a quick drying one, doing the job of absorbing blood and giving the wearer a comfortable
feeling. The back sheet is made with biodegradable plastic too with enough strength not to leak. The
glue used is plant based with recycled cardboard packaging. The tampons on the other hand are
100% organic cotton with cotton thread and veil to prevent fibre shedding with cardboard

A Durham University student, Zoe Miller, launched a company, Bloody Brilliant Pads, in 2021 after
researching the ecological benefits of cotton blended with plant alternatives. Some of her products
contain pina, a fine fabric made of pineapple leaves. There are other sustainable solutions too such
as menstrual cups and reusable cloth pads that are on the rise. These significantly reduce the cost of
buying single use products, but factors affect the decision of buyers such as washing machine and
drying facilities, sterilising container cost, buckets for soaking and cultural taboos.

By 2023 there will be a significant rise in consumers going green and the organic market is expected
to increase by 7%. If all switch to organic and plastic free menstrual products, in two years we could
see approximately 2 million customers using environment friendly options for periods in the UK
alone. Considering each person uses 11,000 menstrual products in their lifetime, 22 billion items
would not be added to plastic pollution. The choice is ours to live consciously and keep plastic out of


With thanks to Anushka for authoring this article!

Posted by Claire Edwards 11 November 2021

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