Impact of single-use menstrual products

Have you ever thought about the impacts created by single-use menstrual products after you dispose of them?

When it comes to environmental impact, not all menstrual products are equal. Much of the environmental impact from popular menstrual products comes from their disposable nature.

Single-use products such as tampons and pads are significant contributors globally to single-use plastic waste. Manufactured from wood pulp, cotton and viscose rayon as well as several plastics (polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene etc.) these products have environmental impacts across their entire life cycle. Tampons, pads and panty liners contain up to 90% plastic that will never truly biodegrade. From research that is available comparing the environmental impacts of different sanitary products, the disposable menstrual pad appears to cause the highest environmental impact, because of the amount of mineral/fossil fuel depletion caused by its production, its estimated carbon footprint, and the amount of wet and dry waste it produces. Pads often contain even more synthetic plastic material than tampons, such as leak-proof bases or extra absorbent strips. Single-use tampons, especially those with plastic applicators, also significantly contribute to overall plastic waste. The plastic that is found in disposable pads, panty-liners and tampons is polyethylene and most microorganisms do not recognize this material as food, so do not decompose it.  As a result, these products take 500–800 years to break down. The Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI) had estimated that there are nearly 336 million menstruating women in India, 36 percent of which use disposable sanitary napkins making the number to 121 million women. If a woman uses 8 sanitary napkins (approx.) per menstruation cycle, it equates to 12.3 billion disposable sanitary napkins from India alone, majority of which are non-biodegradable.

The end result is overflowing landfills causing endless harm to the environment. When large quantities of menstrual waste end up in landfills it can cause long term deterioration of soil and water quality. Blood soiled menstrual absorbents are the best culture medium for disease causing pathogens hence if these remain untreated in the environment there is a risk of building a reservoir of pathogens in the environment. The plastics found in sanitary pads contain chemicals with toxic potential and it also has the potential to transport contaminants. This can pose a serious threat to the ecosystem by eventually increasing our own exposure to lingering dioxins, phthalates, and so forth. 

Disposable products that do not make it to landfill can end up in the oceans or washed up on the beaches, where they create a different problem.  Menstrual products are one of the most commonly found single-use plastic items in marine litter. Some consumers of these products have a habit to flush them in toilets, from where they reach sewage systems and eventually get into our water bodies. These materials will later be ingested by aquatic organisms. Once ingested it can either be egested naturally, or can block the small digestive systems of those that have eaten it. Research has shown that not only can plastics be ingested, if they break down further into nano plastics they can also be absorbed into the bodies of some algal cells. 

A behaviour shift is vital if we need to protect our planet for future generations.The emerging environmental issues  of menstrual waste has resulted in an increase in a range of reliable and sustainable sanitary products available to women. People have started to shift away from conventional mass market products to clean , green and reusable options. The two main sustainable products that are being used nowadays  are reusable cloth pads and  menstrual cups. The low lifecycle cost of these products also make them a much cheaper alternative to disposables. For example, menstrual cups are estimated to have less than 1.5% of the environmental impact of disposables at 10% of the cost.

Keywords- disposable menstrual products, marine pollution, plastic pollution, carbon footprint

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