Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an activist, a volunteer, or simply someone who has an interest in environmental matters, you have probably asked yourself how you can improve the world around you.
To get closer to the answer to that question, I will take a look how various people have approached mitigating the environmental harm caused by disposable menstrual products to see what we can learn from their stories.
For decades now, disposable period products have been a crucial element of hygiene for anyone who menstruates. In one year, an average person will use about 11,000 pads and tampons, adding up to hundreds of pounds a year. The commonplace nature of these products can make it hard to question the impact they could be having on the planet.
In fact, a 2019 study found that most people are not aware of these issues, and those with more awareness were more likely to choose less environmentally harmful methods of period management. So, what exactly is the harm?
The main offender is plastic. Over the years, menstrual products have incorporated more and more plastic in the name of absorbance and discreteness. The pack, the individual wrapping, the applicators, and the pad itself are made of plastic most of the time. This is a problem due to the sheer scale of usage and disposal of these products, as well as the way in which they are disposed of.
According to this infographic from the European Commission, menstrual products are the 5th most common type of plastic waste found on sea shores – above food packaging, disposable cups, and even plastic bags!
We’ve all heard that plastic is bad because it destroys marine life and the communities reliant on it, and can ingested by humans up the food chain. Tampon applicators, for example, do not decompose (not for a very long time), instead they just fall apart into smaller and smaller pieces, ending up as microplastics inside animals which end up in our shops.
There are other problems too. Plastic packaging is a product with value, 95% of which is lost because it goes straight in the trash instead of remaining in the economy. Throwing out 200kg of menstrual products a year, as the average menstruator does, contributes to all of these problems: it’s bad for marine life, our health, and the economy.
The period plastic problem is not new, and neither are the solutions. Many companies offering alternatives have sprung up in the past two decades.
The history of menstrual cups goes all the way back to the 1930s, or even the 1860s, if this medieval-looking patent is legitimate. A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped piece of medical-grade silicone, to be inserted into the vagina.
The environmental benefit of switching from disposable products to a menstrual cup relies on the fact that one cup can last for years, and only requires washing between uses. Keeping a menstrual cup for 3 years, for example, means avoiding 600kg of period waste per person.
Why, then, did this product only become popular recently? Natalie Shure from the Pacific Standard magazine cites the wartime rubber shortage and the aggressive marketing practices of Tampax in its early years (yes, the two products were created around the same time!).
To this day, it is not at all uncommon that the most comprehensive education young girls receive with regards to periods will come from a Tampax or Always representative giving a talk (and giving out free samples) in primary schools. This was exactly my own experience.
Additionally, to quote Natalie Shure’s article “The menstrual cup is a great innovation that makes for so-so business; the tampon is a so-so innovation that makes for great business.” It is simply more profitable to sell someone hundreds of tampons or pads than a single menstrual cup.
And yet, menstrual cups have been rising in popularity, perhaps because the people who like them really like them. No one is particularly passionate about pads or tampons, but users are eager to tell their friends about menstrual cups, and said friends are likely to start using them based on such a recommendation. This makes sense, since a menstrual cup can hold at least twice as much blood as a tampon, so it can often stay in for up to 12 hours.
Additionally, the cost makes itself up very quickly. The average menstruator in the UK will spend about £10 per period on disposables. You can get a menstrual cup for £15-£30, and it will last you years.
Research conducted by DAME indicates that the average user of tampons with applicators will throw out 12,000 applicators throughout their lifetime. Since not everyone will be comfortable switching to cups, and 60% of UK menstruators favour tampons over other products, companies like DAME provide a more sustainable alternative: reusable tampon applicators.
This solution radically reduces the amount of plastic involved in tampon-based period management without requiring the customer base to radically change their habits, built over years of experience. As stated in DAME’s 2019 impact report, the approach is one of catering for a demand that is already there: “What use is a sustainable product if no one uses it?”.
In addition to the applicators, DAME make their tampons exclusively out of organic cotton, with a cellulose wrapper. This means that a plastic-free period is now accessible to tampon users.
Reusable pads and period pants
Another alternative to disposable products are reusable pads. They’re typically made of man-made absorbent materials, bamboo, hemp, cotton, or even suede. You’re supposed to have a couple of them, and wash them in the washing machine between uses. Period pants are essentially just underwear with a built-in cloth pad, and are used the same way.
According to DAME, 6 such pads can replace 1000 regular pads. Since a pad is 90% plastic, this makes a massive difference. The cost makes a difference here too. Assuming that over 5 years you will use a total of 15 cloth pads, you will save about £500 in that time period by switching to the reusable option. Many companies offer different designs, types of fabric, and sizes, to suit everyone’s needs.
The only problem with this product is that the carbon footprint shoots up, surpassing even disposable pads, if the user puts on a separate load of laundry just for the pads. DAME implores their customers not to do this, and instead rinse the pads and add them to the usual wash.
Making a difference
What appears to connect many producers of reusable menstrual products is how they entered the industry, and how they have decided to run their businesses.
A common through line among the sustainable innovators in the period industry is the notion of stumbling upon the issue, and being immediately struck by how the problem and the solution were right in front of us all along.
The group of friends who started DAME, for example, were working at a company providing disposable menstrual products. While packing some orders to be sent out, they suddenly realized how much plastic was involved in the entire process. “One morning we were sat on the floor of Alec’s flat frantically packing our boxes ready for delivery when it struck us: we were drowning in a sea of plastic” – say the DAME team – “We’d sleepwalked into a toxic industry”. The Mooncup was conceived when the founder Eileen Greene “stumbled on the idea” when it was introduced to her by a stranger.
The comments on The Guardian article on the Mooncup are telling as well. Someone writes “It’s the sort of idea that had to be delivered in order to seem so obvious you wonder why it took so long”. This notion that disposable menstrual products were not just suboptimal, but obviously suboptimal, is echoed by the previously quoted Natalie Shure. She says, about disposable tampons: “In retrospect, it feels odd that I had such reflexive loyalty to a product that I never even liked.”
The lesson here seems clear: we should not take anything for granted.
The first step towards solving a systemic environmental problem like period plastic is always questioning the status quo, remaining attentive and open-minded. Are we sleepwalking into a process that isn’t as efficient or sustainable as it could be? Is there anything obvious we’re missing?
Commitment to the cause
Disposable products might make for a better business model, but they cannot compare to something like menstrual cups with regards to the enthusiasm they elicit. If you ask anyone why they use disposable pads and/or tampons, they will probably tell you something along the lines of “Because I always have” and “Is there anything else?”. If you ask someone why they use reusable pads, they will tell you that they’re better for your health and the environment, and tell you where you can buy some yourself. This kind of grapevine advocacy is unique to passion projects like these.
I’ve already mentioned how menstrual cups survived the adversarial market situation pre- and post-WW2, largely due to the small but enthusiastic customer base. The DAME team, similarly, got their start thanks to a Kickstarter fundraiser backed by 5000 people across the world.
It appears that a sincere commitment and enthusiasm about improving the world can be crucial in the process of rallying troops for positive change. The cause, it seems, has to come before the profit motive.
The DAME team says “(…) we soon realised that plastic waste was just a symptom. A symptom of an industry that’s driven by one question: “how much money can we make from this?”. If we were to be an alternative to this, we knew we had to be driven by the question “how can everything we do be better for women and the planet?”.
The same sentiment is echoed in what the founder of Mooncup told The Guardian about Tampax launching a menstrual cup, packaged in plastic: “They have clearly seen a commercial opportunity, that times are changing, and they’ve jumped on the bandwagon. (…) You would have hoped they would focus on eliminating single-use plastic. That would be a diligent environmental approach, rather than just adding another product to the range.”
Out of commitment to the cause, and being surrounded by equally committed people arises the need to keep making positive changes.
DAME, for example, did not stop at creating cotton-only tampons, reusable applicators, and pads. In 2019, they became carbon negative. After their customers diligently pointed out that their tampons still came individually wrapped in plastic, they designed a cellulose-based wrapper, making their tampons completely plastic-free. Additionally, to minimize unnecessary packaging, the tampons come in a mailable box, removing the need for an additional envelope.” Honestly, if we could, we’d spend all our time worrying about little details like this.”
Mooncup refuses to sell special wipes or washes for their cups, since “They’re not needed to care for your cup, and their plastic packaging and microplastics aren’t great for environment either!”.
Mooncup and DAME also support education campaigns aiming at raising awareness of sustainable period products, as well as various charities. It’s this perfectionism on issues small and large that turns customers into fans and advocates, and makes companies into communities.
If the story of sustainable menstrual products tells us anything, it’s that change can happen wherever attentive and enthusiastic individuals take matters into their own hands.
If you have an idea, a project, a product, or have simply noticed a problem, get in touch with the Climate Venture Collective! We are a community aimed at supporting people who are passionate about the environment in their endeavours, and we would love to hear from you!