Don’t Be Trashy
Traditional single-use period products like tampons, pads, and panty liners create an enormous amount of waste.
On average, a single woman may dispose of 11,000 tampons in her lifetime - contributing to the estimated 20 billion pads and tampons that are tossed into North American landfills each year. Pads and tampons contain nonrecyclable materials, and wrapped in their plastic wrappers, can take up to 800 years to decompose. Many organic tampons and pads still have hidden plastics and nonbiodegradable components that do not readily decompose.
What’s more - these estimations of degradation are based on lab conditions with sufficient oxygen circulation. In landfills, waste is tightly packed - so what actually happens to these products in landfill could be very different, as there is often a lack of oxygen making them unlikely to decompose. Plastic in disposable pads and tampons is polyethylene, which microorganisms do not recognize as food, so it does not decompose. Photodegradation, or the breakdown of materials by sunlight, also could play a role in the breakdown of plastics in landfills, but as they have very little light available for this process to occur, it is unlikely that these plastics can break down into smaller pieces in a landfill.
In a nutshell? Plastic period products are pretty trashy.
tampons are disposed of by the average woman in her lifetime
pads and tampons are added to north american landfills each year
is the time it takes for non-recyclable fem-care products to decompose
The Last Straw
When a 2015 video filmed by marine conservation biologist, Christine Figgener, PhD.,of a sea turtle having a 10-12 cm plastic straw removed from it’s nostril went viral, it sparked outrage about plastic waste harming marine life. But what about plastic waste from period products?
Plastic applicators from tampons often make it to the ocean, where they create an entirely different set of problems.
Plastic tampon applicators are often found on beaches and are increasing at an alarming rate. The Marine Conservation Society reported a significant increase in menstrual products found during 2017 beach cleanups, with an average of 9 plastic applicators found per km on UK shores.
So, where does this trash go? Largely, it is ingested by wildlife. Plastic tampon applicators are one of the items most commonly found in the stomachs of dead seabirds. According to scientists, nearly every seabird in the world now contains plastic waste. And without drastic change, this trend will continue to harm wildlife.
Plastic applicators and other single-use period products may undergo photodegradation and break down into microplastics. Microplastics - tiny shards of plastic under 5 mm in size - are now found in nearly every corner of the ocean. Microplastic pollution from tampon applicators can pose a serious threat to marine life. A study of wildlife in the English Channel found that over one third of fish sampled contain microplastic. Not only can marine life ingest plastic, but it can break down into nanoplastics that can be absorbed by algae. Once plastic exists at these lower levels of the food chain, bioaccumulation of plastic can occur with the potential for harmful concentrations in larger organisms.
Change Is In The Air
Waste, pollution, and degradation isn’t the only ecological impact of menstrual products.
The process of creating disposable menstrual products triggers a chain reaction in the environment. A Life Cycle Assessment of tampons conducted by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm found that the processing of LDPE (low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from the monomer ethylene) used in tampon applicators as well as in the plastic back-strip of a sanitary napkin requires high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy that contributes to global warming. How does this add up? Well, a year’s worth of a typical feminine hygiene product leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents. That’s the equivalent of driving a car 13.2 miles, burning 6 lbs of coal, or charging your smartphone 676 times over.