Period products aren't always Earth-friendly. Here's how to find alternatives to help reduce plastic waste.

·7 min read
Beyond their plastic applicators, tampons can include plastic in their wrappers, strings and rayon mixed in with the cotton. (Photo: Getty Images)
Beyond their plastic applicators, tampons can include plastic in their wrappers, strings and rayon mixed in with the cotton. (Photo: Getty Images)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference.

When we think of reducing our waste, we often think about touting a reusable water bottle or bringing our own bags to the grocery store. But what about menstrual products? According to Global Citizen, disposable versions account for more than 440,000 pounds of waste annually — and that's because most products on the market are made mostly of plastic.

For tampons, that can include the plastic applicator, string and, in some brands, synthetic and absorbent rayon mixed in with the cotton. Pads, meanwhile, come with bulkier plastic packaging, a plastic leak-proof adhesive layer and moisture-wicking polyester fibers, making them up to 90 percent plastic. That means they all sit around for a long, long time — up to 800 years, in fact.

But much of the unsustainable problem of menstrual products comes at the beginning of their lifetime, explains Susan Powers, director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at Clarkson University. “Although most people think about the impact of their product at the end of its use, like going into a landfill, greater impacts happen in the manufacture of most products," she tells Yahoo Life. "Both pads and tampons, as well as their packaging, are made of plant-based and petroleum based raw materials. There are many steps and a lot of energy involved in transforming these natural resources into the chemicals and materials that are used to make the products.”

Even applicator-free tampons made of 100 percent organic cotton, though, can put strain on the environment, as growing the natural fiber does take a lot of water and can require other practices that have been called "unsustainable" (though the claims have been hotly debated).

Still, given that a single person who menstruates can expect to use anywhere from 5,000 and 15,000 of these products in a lifetime, there’s a lot of room to make a change. Gen Z is taking to social media to talk about how to make menstruating more sustainable, and a quick search of #sustainableperiods on TikTok (which has been tagged more than 8.5 million times on the app) reveals plenty of young content creators sharing how they reduce waste during their periods, whether that’s through the use of products like period underwear or reusable menstrual cups.

Some are even using reusable applicators on tampons that do not come with them, which Powers, who analyzed the environmental impact of menstrual products, calls the right move.

“In the analysis we did, not having an applicator reduced the total environmental impact score by 14.5 percent,” she explains. “The applicator is one more example of our cultural expectations that we need disposable goods for a five-second use. In some cases, Gen Z is doing more than just talking about how to have a more sustainable period — they’re also creating new options for everyone to use. Nadya Okamoto, who, at 16, founded the company Period Inc. in order to make sure everyone had access to menstrual products, turned to making more sustainable products when the companies she was working with didn’t seem so interested in doing it themselves.

Now, Okamoto’s carbon-neutral company August makes menstrual products that are alternatives to what’s on most supermarket shelves — as well as to reusable products, for customers who may not be as comfortable using them. Its pads, for example, are plastic-free and fully biodegrade within 12 months — and recently went viral on TikTok thanks to their packaging, which breaks down completely in boiling water.

“With August, everything we do is for our community,” Okamoto explains to Yahoo Life. “When we were starting, I thought we would just make menstrual cups and underwear, because I thought that was most sustainable. Then we turned to our community and found that 95 percent of them use tampons and pads and weren’t interested in switching.”

Okamoto says the goal of August is to build brand trust and continue to push for products that become more and more sustainable over time. “When people hear 'sustainable period products,' they assume it’s a lot more expensive, and they assume it doesn’t work,” she says. But more and more alternatives are proving that's just not true.

What you can switch to right now

Whether you prefer tampons and pads, like August found of its customer base, or are open to trying just about anything to lessen your footprint, there are more solutions available now than ever before. Here's a quick breakdown of the alternatives to mainstream offerings:

More sustainable, but still disposable, pads and tampons

In addition to August, companies like Dame (which sells reusable applicators with its applicator-free tampons, Freda (which has a built-in donation element), as well as reliable health-food store brands such as Natracare, are committed to making their products sustainably. Whether that's reducing the plastic in their products or committing to a zero carbon footprint, these brands offer the most traditional options for both managing your period and reducing your impact.

Reusable menstrual cups

Soft silicone menstrual cups, such as the uniquely-shaped Ziggy Cup from Intimina and the more oblong versions now available from a slew of manufacturers — including Diva Cup, Lunette, Saalt (which also has disc-shaped options), Cora (which makes a range of products) and more — sit in the vagina, up against the cervix, and collect blood. When they're full, you wash and sanitize them, as proper care gets you up to a decade of use — more than making up for their $40-on-average price tag.

While some people experience a learning curve when it comes to using cups, their varied shapes and sizes make it easier than ever to find a comfortable fit. One big plus of using a menstrual cup, outside of the sustainability factor, is that there's only one product to carry with you at all times.

Period underwear

Brands like pioneers Thinx — as well as options now including Ruby Love, Knix and so many more, even Victoria's Secret and Uniqlo — offer absorbent but non-bulky period underwear, which can be worn in lieu of a pad, tampon or cup, although some people double-up on options depending on their flow.

"Knix offers consumers a sustainable option that can drastically reduce environmental waste. Our Leakproof products are reusable and sustainable options capable of holding between 1 tsp and 8 tampons (40 ml) worth of liquid," the company says in a statement to Yahoo Life. "From our Leakproof thongs to our Super Leakproof boxer briefs, our variety of machine washable products are designed for sweat, light leaks, menstruation and everything in between"

A downside worth noting is that studies have found some of these products, particularly Thinx (which was the subject of a 2020 class-action lawsuit) contain toxic PFAS (aka PFCs or perfluorinated chemicals) which can resist biodegrading and come with hormone-disrupting health risks, although the risk level varies by brand.

They are also not cheap, but again, the average $30-per-pair cost is made up for quickly when you consider the high and never-ending cost of tampons.

Reusable pads

Much like period panties, reusable pads can be thrown in the wash, and are more sustainable than the one-and-done variety. The brand Rael makes reusable pads from organic cotton ($34 for three), sans a plastic wrapper, that can be used up to 120 times. Knix has its own version — as does Hannah, Dame and plenty of Etsy creatives.

One thing that is not recommended? Reusable tampons, especially from marketplaces like Etsy. While traditional tampons are regulated by the FDA as a medical device, reusable tampons, thus far, are not — and doctors are skeptical about their safety, given the lack of research.

Finally, while there are plenty of changes individuals can make, environmental activist Ella Daish, who created the #EndPeriodPlastic campaign (see her Instagram above with a life-size tampon applicator made of plastic applicators) in order to remove unnecessary plastic from menstrual products, points out that it is ultimately on companies to shift the kind of products that they create, so that customers can follow.

“So often the pressure is put on the customer to change, but these companies have the ability to make long-lasting change in a way that I don’t as an individual,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I wanted to hold these companies accountable. In the first year, they weren’t really listening to me, but the support of thousands of people on the campaign that were taking continuous action with me on these brands and calling on them to act, really led to them coming to the table and engage with me.”

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