How to have a sustainable period

By planetm | May 25, 2021

From the plastic in pads to the cotton in tampons, periods don’t just take their toll on us, but on the environment, too. Rachel England explores how to have a more sustainable period…

How to have a sustainable period

Periods are a tedious fact of life for many of us, so at this point in our menstrual careers we know what works best for our bodies when it comes to menstrual products – which brands, which absorbencies and which styles.

As such, the same products are chucked in the trolley month after month with as much enthusiasm as washing-up liquid or milk. As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – so why bother switching things up now?

The planet, however, would disagree. Menstrual hygiene products are designed to be small and discreet, but the impact they have on the environment is huge. Which leaves us wondering, how we can have a more sustainable period?

How sustainable is your period?

For a start, tampons and towels are full of plastic. Some packs of towels are up to 90 per cent plastic –
the equivalent of four plastic shopping bags – while tampons often come with applicators that can’t be
recycled because they’re classed as medical waste.

And consider this: the average woman will use more than 11,000 of these items in her lifetime.

Then there’s the ingredients in the product itself, which manufacturers are not obligated to list on packaging.

Tampons require resource-intensive cotton farming, and most contain chemicals such as dioxin, chlorine and rayon. When these products sit in landfill – where they could take up to 800 years to break down – these chemicals get soaked up by the earth and are released as pollution into groundwater and the air.

In fact, disposable menstrual products are responsible for 200,000 tonnes of landfill waste a year in the UK.

Tampons are flushed away which is not sustainable

Not all of it makes it to landfill, though, as most of us are guilty of flushing these items down the toilet.

According to the Institution of Environmental Sciences, around 2.5 million tampons, 1.4 million sanitary towels and 700,000 panty liners are flushed down the toilet in the UK every single day.

These items block sewage systems, invade the oceans and wash up on our shores. The Marine Conservation Society says that on average, nearly five pieces of menstrual waste are found every 100 metres on Britain’s beaches.

And it doesn’t stop there. Simply making these products in the first place generates a carbon footprint of about 15 million tonnes of Greenhouse gases every year – the equivalent of burning around 35 million barrels of oil.

It all paints a depressing picture of what is already quite a dreary monthly undertaking. But just as society is making the gradual transition away from other disposable items such as plastic coffee cups and cling film, so too is there a growing movement of women embracing more sustainable menstrual care – and an increasing number of ethically-minded companies to cater for them.

Whether you prefer tampons, pads or are willing to give something new a try, there’s a variety of low-impact options available to get you through your period without sacrificing any kind of comfort or confidence.

Sustainable tampons

Sustainable periods: tampons

Tampon users are in a great position to make a positive difference by choosing a different brand, because sustainable tampons work exactly like traditional, plastic-heavy tampons – there’s no need to
get accustomed to anything wildly different. 

A non-applicator, organic tampon will have the least impact on the environment (we like the ones from Kind Organic, £3.10 for 18), but for those that can’t do without an applicator, go for one that’s biodegradable. TOTM make biodegradable applicator tampons in a range of absorbencies (from £2.60 for 10).

These can be a little pricier than your run-of-the-mill brands, so you could save money and go the extra mile for the environment with a reusable applicator.

DAME’s award-winning applicator is smooth as silk, easy to use and completely self-sanitising – plus it’s carbon neutral! It works with every size of tampon, and comes with its own tin and zip wallet. At £24.99 it’s a bit of an outlay, but will save you cash on disposable applicator tampons in the long run.

And if you leak? Don’t throw away your pants – try the genius Save My Knickers (£12.99) to remove any stains!

Sustainable period tip: Don’t bin your organic tampons – put them in the compost.

Choose pads for a more eco-friendly period

Sustainable periods: pads

Menstrual towels are among the worst offenders for menstrual care plastic waste, so for a no-stress switch just choose plastic-free pads instead. NatraCare makes towels from natural, breathable materials in a variety of absorbencies, with and without wings (from £2.29 for 12).

But if you want to do away with the disposable element entirely, consider investing in some reusable pads. Modern-day versions are light years ahead of the old menstrual rags of yore, and are designed to be super absorbent, odour-free and comfortable.

The cute reusable pads from Bloom and Nora – who have partnered with the Department of Education to provide free reusable towels in schools – can be used up to 150 times. They cost from £16.49 for a three-pack, but according to the company, that works out at around 3p per use, compared to 12p per use for a disposable pad or tampon.

Just rinse them in cold water and pop them in the wash within 48 hours of use.

Sustainable period tip: Don’t wash reusable pads with fabric softener as this reduces their absorbency.

Try a menstrual cup

Sustainable periods: menstrual cups

Menstrual cups were invented in the 1930s, but have exploded in popularity recently because of their long list of benefits.

For the uninitiated, a menstrual cup is a small, flexible cup that’s inserted like a tampon without an applicator. It catches and collects your flow – up to three times as much blood as a pad – which is simply poured down the toilet when it’s time to empty it.

It can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time and can be reused for years, saving both money and unnecessary waste.

We love the stylish yet long-lasting design from UK company Sea + Flo (£25).

Sustainable period tip: Make sure to buy the right size, which is dependent on whether or not you’ve given birth.

Sustainable periods: period pants

Bleeding freely into a pair of pants might not seem like the most appealing prospect, but period pants let you do exactly that, without leaks, wetness or odour.

Made with layers of natural fibres such as bamboo and cotton, and leak-resistant synthetic casing, period pants come in a range of fits and designs, from high-waisted boyshorts to thongs, and can hold up to four tampons’ worth of blood. We like the pretty pairs at Modi Bodi (£19.50), which will last for around two years.

Not sure? Modi Bodi gives all new customers a 30-day risk-free trial.

Sustainable period tip: Cold wash period pants in a delicates bag to keep them in top condition.

Sustainable periods: period-friendly active wear

The menstrual care industry has gotten a lot better at catering to the needs of active women on their period, and more environmentally-conscious brands are finally catching up. Just as well, since studies show that exercise can help reduce period pain and other menstrual symptoms.

US brand Dear Kates makes a fantastic line of period-friendly workout leggings which protect you from stains, leaks and odours just like period pants – and they ship to the UK.

Their eye-catching, mid-calf yoga pants ($99) boast a four-way stretch, enhanced pull, and reinforced waistband, and can hold up to 1.5 tampons’ worth of blood – perfect for a good workout.

And there’s good news if you’re a water baby – particularly if you’re not a fan of tampons.

Period-friendly swimwear has finally arrived. The classic one-piece swimsuit from Modi Bodi (£65.50) fits like a regular swimsuit but comes with a super-absorbent stain, smell and bacteria-fighting lining in the gusset for a no fuss, no leak swim sesh.

Sustainable period tip: Think period-proof swimwear is too good to be true? Try it out in the bath first – you’ll be surprised!

This article first appeared in issue 16 of Planet Mindful magazine.

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