The Environmental Impact of Periods: History, Waste, and Sustainable Options
Every month, 1.8 million people menstruate—which results in a lot of waste. This is the environmental impact of periods and how to make them more sustainable.
Every month, an estimated 1.8 billion people around the world menstruate. As you can imagine, that results in a lot of waste.
Because traditional period products are single-use, it’s estimated that tampons, pads, and panty liners—along with their packaging—generate more than 200,000 metric tons of waste every year. So how does sustainability fit into menstrual cycles?
In a recent episode of Good Together, Nadya Okamoto, the co-founder of August—a lifestyle brand that offers sustainable period care products for all—discusses the environmental impact of periods, how period products have evolved over the years, and the rise of planet-friendly options.
The History of Period Products
Up until the early 1900s, menstrual cloths made out of flannel or woven fabric were the prevailing product. By 1921, cellulose sanitary pads were introduced to the market, and the name brand Tampax began selling tampons soon after in 1933.
These first mass-manufactured solutions were mostly made of simple materials like cotton and cardboard. But as plastic worked its way into everyday materials, menstrual products became chock full of plastic, too—and that's the norm we still see on store shelves today.
But while periods of the past may have been more sustainable for the planet, they weren't sustainable for menstruators.
"[It] would be more sustainable if we went [back] to the way period care was 200 years ago," Okamoto says. "But 200 years ago, your period was also a reason you wouldn't leave the house as much. It was something that wasn't as comfortable, it was something you hid."
That's why Okamoto says she's not one to shy away from having important conversations about not only creating something that serves people's needs—"especially around something as sensitive as periods"—but also holding her company accountable about "constantly becoming more sustainable." And, making sure she's holding the period care industry to a new standard as well.
Let's dive into where the industry is currently at... and where it's going.
The Environmental Impact of Period Products
According to a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, measuring the environmental impact of periods is complex.
The study authors write that the global environmental impact of menstrual products comes from "the use of raw materials, energy, and water during the actual manufacturing processes, the ingredients used in the products themselves (cotton versus plastics) and their packaging (usually plastics), and how many products are used and disposed of worldwide."
Let's start with the raw materials. The plastic used in tampons is more visible thanks to the applicator. But typical pads on store shelves often contain more plastic than tampons—up to 90%—thanks to features like leak-proof bases. In addition to plastic, both pads and tampons are often made of non-organic cotton combined with synthetic fibers, such as rayon or polyester.
After you use tampons and pads, they get tossed in the trash, where they either wind up in landfills or are burnt in incinerators—both of which are associated with producing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The study authors state each menstruator uses and disposes of between 500 and 15,000 pads and tampons throughout their lifetime.
Typical pads take between 500 and 800 years to break down in a landfill. Then there are the plastic applicators, which the study authors say never truly biodegrade. If they do, experts say they simply break down into microplastics. These tiny pieces of plastic can easily pass through water filtration systems and often wind up in oceans, where they can harm both animals and humans.
But what about plastic applicators that are labeled as recyclable? While plastic applicators could be recycled in theory, depending on where you live, blood might be classified as a biohazard. This causes the majority of applicators to wind up in a landfill. Always contact your local recycling facility and ask if you're able to recycle the applicator before throwing it away.
It's not just the tampons and pads that cause harm to the planet—it's also the packaging they come in. It's estimated that each menstruator disposes of 400 pounds of period product packaging during their lifetime.
The good news is there are plenty of options—both disposable and reusable—that make periods more sustainable.
How Period Products Are Becoming More Sustainable
In a world where period products result in so much waste, offering products that remain affordable yet minimize environmental damage is a necessary step toward reducing environmental harm.
While reusable pads and menstrual cups are always great options, as they drastically reduce waste, they're not the norm. Many people still prefer the ease and access to single-use options.
"I think your period is one area where you will not sacrifice [the] efficacy of a good product or a comfortable product for something that's slightly more sustainable," Okamoto says. "So I think with August, our mentality was we really need to meet people where they're at, give them a more sustainable option, and then grow together as we create more and more sustainable products."
Offering eco-friendly menstrual products that people will consistently use is key to having a lasting impact on both menstruators and the environment. Luckily, there's an increase of more sustainable options on the market that include sustainable features.
August, for instance, has 100% organic cotton tampons with BPA-free plastic applicators, sustainable pads that are plastic-free and free of pesticides, polyester, rayon, and other things you don't want anywhere near your body, and organic cotton liners that are biodegradable and have water-dissolvable wrappers. (Okamoto also curated the Plastic-Free Favorites box in the Brightly Shop, which features period products and beyond.)
Okamoto is always striving to make her company's products even more sustainable. And between the work she's put into her own products and her work educating others in the industry, the future of period care is looking bright.