EcoBeat Staff- In the lifetime of a women residing in a developed country, her period will generate at least 300 pounds of landfill waste. That’s more than the weight of a baby elephant. And while we’re all sitting here thinking how uncomfortable that makes us feel, needless to say, no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room. But it is a discussion that should be held because not only do used feminine products contribute to our waste problems, but they are representative of a larger, more pervasive problem of how we handle waste (or don’t handle it, rather).
So what is the real environmental impact of a tampon or pad before it reaches the landfill where it will then take hundreds of years to biodegrade? Many articles on the topic simply focus on two points: creation and disposal. The reality is that there is a full life cycle with many steps to take into account including production, raw materials/inputs, packaging and disposal. In 1991, the National Association of Diaper Services (NAD) researched the life cycle of diapers, which surprisingly contain similar inputs and issues of disposal as feminine products do. As a part of this study, the American Petroleum Institute estimated that 3.5 billion gallons of fuel were used to produce the 18 million diapers. That means for SUV or mini-van drivers in 1991 using an average of 721 gallons of gas per year, each child’s diaper consumption resulted in over 1,000 years worth of gasoline for that same SUV (see chart for data)! Although pads and tampons are smaller, they can easily be compared to diapers due to the shear volume of usage over a time.
In terms of raw production materials, tampons and pads are typically made out of LDPE plastic (low density polyethelene), cotton and rayon, which increases absorbency. Rayon, made primarily from wood pulp, is typically bleached using chlorine dioxide, a process that can produce dioxin, a known toxin identified by the FDA. Plastic is used for pad lining, the packaging of individually wrapped tampons and pads, tampon applicators and even in the coating of product boxes, which makes both boxes and products very difficult to recycle. 80% of feminine product’s total impact however, comes from the cotton used in the padding. Cotton is considered to have one of the highest water footprints of any commodity crop. For example, it takes 2,700 liters of water pumped into cotton fields to produce one t-shirt. That ratio of water to end product makes the practice of using non-reusable cotton an extremely inefficient and unsustainable process.
In the context of landfill waste as a whole, some estimates suggest that 20 billion pads, tampons and applicators are sent to landfills every year in North America only. For the individual, this may seem like a drop in the bucket when a woman may produce as much as 62,415 pounds of garbage in her life. For your reference, that would bring our count up to four full-grown elephants in the room. And we are lucky if everything ends up in the landfill. The Ocean Conservancy picked up nearly 20,000 tampon applicators in one clean up, on one beach, in one day.
So what can we women do to lessen our feminine product footprint? Are there other, more sustainable (and still comfortable) ways to deal with our periods? Well, yes there are other ways, but as most things go, you have to be ready for an open mind. Companies that have been around for a while, such as Luna Pads and GladRags make re-useable liners that last for almost four years when given proper care. Yes, they too are made of cotton but they stretch over longer ranges of time than most people keep their sweaters. Now you may be thinking that these products are for grungy hippies, but they have been around for years and all have good reviews in comfort, feasibility and cleanliness. For those women who don’t feel these solutions fit their lifestyle, the company Knowaste has found technology that can recycle sanitary items and turn them into new products. Unfortunately, those particular recycling services are difficult to locate and participate in. It is important to point out however, that there is no use shaming women into using different products because after all, periods are a very personal topic and varying lifestyles make it difficult for many women to consider varying options. But while we’re waiting for either recycling to become more efficient and alternative products to become more commonplace, knowledge is empowering no matter what time of the month it is.