Imagine being forced to use plastic products every single month

For some people, cutting down on plastic consumption could mean using reusable bags, swapping out for glassware or avoiding straws. But for more than a quarter of the world’s population, experiencing a monthly period requires the purchase of care products, amounting to around 15,000 tampons per lifetime and generating 60 kg of pad waste per person. Disposable options come with an economic as well as environmental cost: it’s thought that Canadians spend up to $6000 on period products in their life.

“It’s estimated that 20 billion pads and tampons hit landfills every year, and that they will take 500 years to decompose,” says Jane Hope, marketing and communications manager of Aisle reusable period care products. “Meaning that pretty much every commercially manufactured disposable period product, as we know them, still exists in the landfill somewhere.”

While landfill is a huge issue, the actual process of creating period care products is a plastic-heavy method, with disposable conventional products containing up to 90 percent plastic. Plastic strips on pads and tampon applicators are the biggest offenders, as the polyethylene and polypropylene used to create them requires a lot of fossil-fuel generated energy to produce, which leeches into the ground. And each pad can contain as much plastic as four plastic bags, which means people who menstruate could be using up to the equivalent of 350 bags per year. 

Increasingly, women are trying reusable products to help cut down on necessary monthly purchases and create less waste. Stigma has played a part in the cynical marketing of disposable plastic products as being a ‘clean’ choice for people who menstruate, and education is helping to open up the conversation around the environmental and social impact that period products cause.

Myths about reusable products, such as the hygiene factor, sometimes create a barrier for people to try making the switch. Hope busts some of the most common myths about these products:

“That they smell (properly washed, there is no smell because the products are breathable), that they don’t work (all Aisle products are lab-tested to be more absorbent than disposables) or that they are expensive (spread out over the course of their lifetimes, Aisle products are more cost-effective than disposables).”

Diva Cup, which is a popular tampon replacement that is inserted into the vagina to collect blood, is one of the most well-known brands of reusable menstrual cups. Reusable pads and ‘period underwear’ are other options to replace disposable pads with cloth alternatives that are rinsed after use and washed in the washing machine. Period underwear comes in a wide range of styles from bigger coverage options to thongs and lace panties that are designed to absorb various flows.Diva CupDiva CupRosaseven is a new feminine sustainable period underwear brand, made in Vancouver, Canada using organic fabrics. “Our main fabric is Tencel Lyocell, which is a yarn made from wood pulp that doesn’t use pesticides or require irrigation to produce," says founder Delphine Veilleux. “The unique physical properties of Tencel Lyocell give it a softer than cotton hand-feel that is gentle on even sensitive skin, thermal regulating, and naturally resistant to bacteria and is biodegradable. Our internal protection absorbency fabrics are made from 100 percent organic cotton and natural cellulose fibres, and laces are created using a majority percentage of recycled nylon yarn.”RosasevenFacebook/RosasevenDisposable options have also been made more environmentally friendly by using compostable/biodegradable ingredients to minimize impact. Vancouver Island-based joni is a company that sells organic bamboo pads that work like any other, but the pads break down easily in landfill.

“Our pads are on average 92 percent biodegradable within six months, which means that they won’t sit in landfills for hundreds of years like traditional pads,” says joni co- founder Linda Biggs. “For many people who menstruate, pads are their only option due to health, sexual trauma, or other reasons. Providing a better and more sustainable alternative is important. Bodily agency is important.”JoniTegan McMartin JoniBut what about women who don't even have access to traditional period care products—who don't have the option of choosing a more eco-friendly option?

Stigma and access to safe period care products can create a ‘period poverty’ effect in countries around the world. Some initiatives, such as the reusable AFRIpads in Uganda, enable young people to still go to school while menstruating, providing a hygienic and cost-effective option that ensures young girls can continue their education.

And it's not just an issue in third-world countries.

“We have a misapprehension that period products are easy to come by [in Canada],” says Hope. “But a Plan International study revealed that two-thirds of Canadian menstruators aged 14 to 55 have had to miss out on an activity because of anxiety around access to products, and heavy stigma still surrounds the experience of menstruation.”

It’s estimated that the actual number is higher, more like three million people in Canada, as the numbers don’t include LGBTQ+ members or people in remote communities without Internet access. Stigma stops people asking for help and not having access to safe period care affects health, work, school, life and basic human dignity.

“Having to pick between food or pads is not something anyone should have to do,” says Biggs. “Accessible period care is not equal across Canada—those in remote communities often pay $30 for a box of pads that would cost $8 at a store in an urban community. So they use alternatives and sometimes those alternatives like cardboard, rags, even toilet paper, are not safe to use. Access to clean water or safe facilities is also a barrier to many in Canada—so providing someone with a period cup who doesn’t have access to clean water to clean themselves, or the cup, or a safe facility in which to do so is a real barrier.”

With periods being a fact of life for more than a quarter of the world’s population at a time, finding environmentally-friendly solutions is a necessity—coupled with stigma-fighting education and providing safe alternatives for groups who don’t have the luxury of choice.