How biodegradable and reusable alternatives to disposable period products could reduce the amount of plastic littering our environment

An illustration showing different types of period products, from pads to tampons to cups

Source: © runLenarun/iStock/Getty Images

‘It’s plastic hidden in plain sight,’ says Ella Daish, founder of the #EndPeriodPlastic campaign. ‘Bags, bottles and straws dominate the plastic discussion; we don’t really think about period products.’

Disposable period pads contain up to 90% plastic and tampons up to 6% (excluding their applicators if they have them). With the average menstruating person using over 11,000 disposable pads and tampons over a lifetime, that adds up to an awful lot of plastic waste.

In your class

Discussing period products carries stigma, especially among teenagers and in mixed gender classrooms. This article and interactive classroom activities provide an alternative introduction to the topic. Use them to break some of the taboos and engage learners in a conversation about sustainability. You know your class best, so consider pairings and groups carefully to meet their needs.

Disposable period products are only used for four to eight hours before being placed in sanitary bins or general household waste destined for landfill or incineration. An alarming proportion also ends up in our oceans and waterways after being put down the toilet. Each day in the UK, an estimated 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million period pads are flushed.

It’s no surprise that period products are the fifth most common single-use plastic item found on Europe’s beaches, present in greater numbers than both plastic bags and straws.

Until just over a century ago, people who menstruated used homemade products to soak up menstrual blood or simply let it run free. The late 1800s saw the launch of the first disposable period pads. But sales of these gauze-covered cotton pads – held in place by tethering to a special belt – were held back due to the advertising of period products being taboo in the Victorian era.

Download this

Blind-box thinking activity, for age range 14–16

Learners identify a sealed tampon and a period pad through touch alone and discuss their use. 

Life-cycle assessment group activity, for age range 14–16

Using the information sheets provided, students complete a life-cycle assessment for three period products, then decide which to recommend as the most sustainable and discuss why. Encourage students to consider why it might be difficult to complete an assessment, reach judgements and resolve issues. 


Blind box thinking activity, for age range 14–16

Learners identify a sealed tampon and a period pad through touch alone and discuss their use in this group activity. 

Life-cycle assessment group activity, for age range 14–16

Using the information sheets provided, students complete a life-cycle assessment for three period products, then decide which to recommend as the most sustainable and discuss why. Encourage students to consider why it might be difficult to complete an assessment and reach a judgement.

Download both activities from the Education in Chemistry website:] 

The first world war saw women working outside the home in far greater numbers than before. It also triggered a change in the material used for period pads, after it was noticed that cellulose bandages were absorbing soldiers’ blood more effectively than those made of cotton. After the war, leftover cellulose bandages were turned into disposable period pads and sold under the brand name Kotex. Advertising in women’s magazines started in the early 1920s and the market for disposable period products finally exploded.

In the mid-1930s, the first disposable tampons – Tampax – arrived on the market. These compact, absorbent, bullet-shaped cotton devices had a cardboard applicator for easy insertion and a string attached for removal.

The rest, as they say, is history and today the vast majority of people use disposable period products.

Product design

Over the years, the design of period products has evolved: in the 1970s self-adhesive strips saw the demise of the sanitary belt, and plastic tampon applicators were introduced. In the 1990s, innovative absorbent gels shrunk the size of pads.

Plastic applicators are the plastic straw of the period industry

Today, a typical disposable pad has a synthetic fibre or cotton top layer, followed by a porous layer made of a synthetic fibre or cotton that transports liquid away from the surface, an absorbent core containing the same super-absorbent polymers found in nappies, a plastic waterproof backing sheet and an adhesive.

A typical tampon has a thin synthetic fibre or cotton cover, a cotton-based absorbent core and a synthetic fibre or cotton string. Applicator tampons also have a plastic or cardboard tool to aid insertion.

Tide turns on the plastic applicator

The plastic tampon applicator is a significant target for Ella’s #EndPeriodPlastic campaign. ‘Plastic applicators are the plastic straw of the period industry,’ she explains. ‘They’re the first thing that manufacturers should remove. They don’t need to do any product development as the alternative options are already out there: it’s a non-applicator tampon, a cardboard applicator or a reusable applicator.’

A photo of a woman on a beach with a giant tampon applicator made of giant tampon applicators

Source: Courtesy of Ella Daish

Ella Daish of #EndPeriodPlastic with her sculpture made from plastic Tampax applicators collected at 15 British beaches

In early 2018, Ella started emailing, phoning and sending letters to period product manufacturers asking them to shun the plastic tampon applicator. She had her first taste of success in September 2019, when Sainsbury’s stopped using them in their own-brand tampons. Aldi followed suit in January 2020 and Superdrug in May 2020. Ella estimates this collectively saves over 17 tonnes of plastic waste per year.

Tampax, the unrivalled top dog of the tampon market – making about 30% of the tampons sold annually around the globe – is the company Ella would most like to get onboard next. ‘They’re still very resistant to change,’ she says. But she’s not giving up and, in summer 2020, Ella made a giant tampon applicator out of 12,000 Tampax applicators that her supporters had collected at 15 beaches across the UK.

Plastic-free disposables

As consumers, we have a lot of power to force change: if we collectively stop buying certain items, manufacturers stop producing them. And as consumers have begun shunning plastic in period products – thanks to Ella’s and other campaigns – the number of alternatives has boomed.

Environmentally-friendly disposables are one such alternative. Bristol-based Natracare has been selling eco-friendly tampons and period pads since 1989. The size of the market for green period products has grown rapidly in recent years in line with better consumer awareness of plastic waste says Jess Gitsham, Natracare’s sales and marketing manager. ‘Plastics in our oceans have become a prominent issue thanks to programmes like Blue Planet.’

Natracare’s period products are all home compostable. ‘People can put them in their home compost bin,’ says Jess. Even if they end up in landfill, they will breakdown much faster than non-compostable products. The company’s tampons are 100% organic cotton and come with or without a cardboard applicator. Its pads have an organic cotton top layer, a wood pulp absorbent layer and a compostable plastic bottom layer.

A photo of washable period pads and pants, and a menstrual cup

Source: © SIvan Peres/Shutterstock

Riding the wave of anti single-use plastic feeling: reusable period products

Reusable products

Reusable period products are also riding the wave of the anti-single-use-plastic feeling. These include reusable period pads, period pants and menstrual cups.

East Sussex-based Cheeky Wipes launched its reusable, washable period pad range around five years ago. These contain a moisture wicking top layer made of cotton or bamboo, an absorbent layer of cotton or polyester, a waterproof layer composed of the thermoplastic polyurethane and a bottom outer fabric layer. Plastic is needed for waterproofing, says Cheeky Wipes founder Helen Rankin. ‘There is no perfect solution’ for eliminating plastic from periods, she adds.

The Cheeky Wipes period pants, launched a couple of years ago, have a very similar construction to the pads apart from the addition of the synthetic fibre elastane in the cotton absorbent layer to give the pants some stretch.

Reusable pads and period pants may be new to the market, but menstrual cups are not. The first patents for these bell-shaped devices, which fit into the vagina to collect period blood, were filed in the mid-1880s. They remained a niche product until single-use plastic awareness led to a significant uptick in their use, explains clinical epidemiologist and menstrual cup researcher Annemieke van Eijk at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Switching from tampons to menstrual cups was found to reduce carbon impact from period products by 16 times

Most cups are made of 100% medical-grade silicone, with rubber, latex and elastomer cups also being available. Every four to eight hours, users must remove and empty the cups before reinsertion or cleaning for storage.

In 2019, Annemieke and her colleagues published a meta-analysis of studies comparing disposable pads and tampons to menstrual cups. They found that – assuming a 10-year lifetime – a cup created 0.4% of the plastic waste of disposable pads and 6% of that of tampons.

Other considerations

To reduce single-use plastic, reusable period products or plastic-free disposables are an easy win, provided they work for you and your lifestyle.

But whether they are better for the environment as a whole has not yet been confirmed, according to Tracy Stewart, director general of the Absorbent Hygiene Products Manufacturers Association that represents disposable period product manufacturers in the UK. ‘There’s not a lot of independent research out there looking at the life cycle [of period products],’ explains Tracy. Most of the existing research has been published, or funded, by the companies making the various products.

In 2019, the not-for-profit environmental organisation Zero Waste Scotland filled part of this knowledge gap with a life-cycle analysis of the carbon emissions of different period product types. A person switching from tampons to menstrual cups was found to reduce their carbon impact from period products by 16 times, saving 7 kg carbon dioxide equivalents per year.

‘I’m calling on the Scottish and English government to spend their period poverty money on eco-friendly products’

Other environmental concerns such as waste volumes and water usage were not considered in this life-cycle analysis. ‘The paucity of data remains one of the biggest challenges to undertake a comprehensive life-cycle analysis study,’ says Ramy Salemdeeb, an environmental analyst for Zero Waste Scotland.

Another consideration when picking period products is price. Reusable products have a large upfront cost, but overall they save a considerable amount of money compared to disposable items. The charity Bloody Good Period has estimated that the average lifetime cost of using disposable period products is about £4800 – while a new menstrual cup every decade during a person’s menstruating lifetime would come in at around £100.

Ella is keen to educate school students on the alternatives out there. ‘You are given free samples of the big brands at school and this starts the consumer cycle without you even realising it,’ she says. Ella is lobbying governments and local authorities to stop this.

When the Welsh government announced funding for free period products in schools in early 2019, Ella asked that they spend a proportion of that money on eco-friendly products. To date, four Welsh councils have said they’ll spend 100% of these funds on such products and the Welsh government has said that 50% of the funding across Wales must be spent this way. ‘I’m now calling on the Scottish government and English government to spend their period poverty money on eco-friendly products as well,’ she says.

Ella is currently focused full-time on her campaign. Purging periods of unnecessary plastics ‘is so important to me,’ she explains. And she is not alone. At the time of writing, over 245,000 people have signed her online petition asking manufacturers to #EndPeriodPlastics.

Nina Notman is a freelance science writer and editor specialising in chemistry

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