Where’s the impact of pads and tampons?

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In this series, we’ve been investigating the impacts of various different consumer products, attempting to untangle the complicated webs of production, manufacture and resource use. We’ve told the story of a chocolate Easter egg, a cotton t-shirt, and a paperback book, discovering along the way some fascinating facts about how these products affect our increasingly fragile planet.

This week, we’re going to investigate menstrual products. Unfortunately, however you term them – sanitary products, menstrual products, whatever – it sounds euphemistic; there’s still a culture of shame surrounding the whole experience of menstruation. Leaving aside the awkwardness, however, and the nomenclature, our use – and disposal – of tampons and pads has a considerable effect on the environment. Every year, we discard an average of 200,000 tonnes of waste from menstrual products, a large proportion of which is destined for landfill or the ocean.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at what tampons and pads are made of, and consider some alternatives. Help us tell the story by leaving comments below!

First off, let’s have a look at tampons. It’s estimated that one woman will use 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, or 22 items for each period. Each tampon is also estimated to take an average six months to break down, so it’s hardly a surprise that a 2010 survey found that for every kilometre of coastline, there were 8.9 tampon applicators (as well as 22.5 pads, liners and backing strips).

The tampon was first developed in the 20s and 30s, around the same time as the re-usable menstrual cup. However, a business model predicated on disposability was much more attractive, and tampons were marketed aggressively, fixating on their supposed hygiene and convenience. However, they’ve long been linked to health problems, most notably Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Made of cotton or a blend of cotton and rayon, a synthetic product made from wood pulp, there are also concerns that tampons could contain dioxins from the bleaching process and pesticides from the cultivation of the cotton. As we discovered in our post about the impact of a cotton t-shirt, cotton production makes heavy use of incredibly dangerous pesticides.

Tampons aren’t classed as medical products, and as such, don’t have to provide detailed product information. The Women’s Environment Network, in their informative report Seeing Red: Sanitary Protection and the Environment explain that tampon manufacture is self-policed by an industry-led body, which doesn’t even require that tampons be sterile.

This lack of information is especially concerning for fragrance-laced tampons, a concept which seems singularly bizarre. As the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes, “because the formulas are considered trade secrets, companies don’t have to disclose what’s in fragrance. We know from product-testing that fragrance may contain allergens, sensitizers, phthalates (a class of chemicals that has been linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility), neurotoxins and synthetic musks (which can also disrupt hormones).”

Disposable pads are a less modern invention than tampons, with the first versions hitting the market in the late 19th Century. Since then, they’ve evolved into something more user-friendly – as examples in the Museum of Menstruation show, earlier iterations required women to wear a belt to hold the pad in place.

However, the modern materials affording such convenience derive from the petroleum industry – therefore, their manufacture takes a dangerous toll on the environment. Pads also take a very long time to break down, leaving a long-term environmental legacy.

Every year, WEN report, the disposables industry spends a whopping £14 million advertising these products to us. The message – that, as WEN put it, “women are somehow dirty and in need of special cleansing products” – reaches 18.6 million women. So it’s hardly a surprise that disposable menstrual products seem necessary, even unavoidable.

However, there are other options. If you’re the crafting type, you can easily find patterns to make your own re-usable pads online. If not, re-usable pads are available to buy online, as well as re-usable menstrual cups.

What are the impacts of the things we buy? Where is the energy used? What are the impacts on other people and the environment?

Where’s the Impact? is an innovative teaching resource exploring the ecological footprint of products. There are literally thousands of processes involved in the production of any given product – to raise awareness about the impacts of production, pupils use a set of cards to tell the story of a product from beginning to end.

Buy Where’s the Impact from the CAT Eco Store 01654 705 959 or email education@cat.org.uk.