What's the environmental impact of my period?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 16 2010 9:36 AM

Greening the Crimson Tide

What's the environmental impact of my period?

Tampons.
What's the environmental impact of a tampon?

Every month, I seem to go through an endless number of disposal pads and tampons. What impact are my moon cycles having on the planet?

According to the new book Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation, the average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds of "pads, plugs, and applicators" in her lifetime. That sounds like a lot. But how much is 300 pounds in the grand scheme of things? Consider that the average American woman menstruates for 38 years—a period during which she can be expected to produce a grand total of 62,415 pounds of garbage (PDF). Thus, during your fertile years, period-related detritus should make up about 0.5 percent of your personal landfill load.

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Is that worth fretting over? It's hard to say. Plastic plates and cups also make up 0.5 percent of our trash every year (PDF), and those products induce plenty of environmental agita. At the same time, American women are always being told that their periods are shameful—do we really need to make them feel like they're killing the planet, too?

Here's the Lantern's take on the matter. If you're really concerned about your garbage output, focus on the most straightforward changes you can make—like buying more items in bulk or planning out your grocery shopping so that you cut back on food waste. (In 2008, containers and packaging made up nearly 26 percent of the trash Americans sent to landfills; food scraps, almost 19 percent.)With respect to feminine care, you can pick more efficient versions of the products you already use—like maxi pads that aren't individually wrapped. (Feminine care products aren't sterile, so they don't need the extra packaging.) Or try tampons without applicators: Market leader o.b. estimates that its tampons create 58 percent less waste.

You can also find disposable products that claim to be better for the environment and better for your health. Conventional pads and tampons are generally made with rayon (produced from wood pulp) or rayon-cotton blends, but a handful of companies use organic cotton. According to Huantian Cao, a sustainable-textiles specialist at the University of Delaware, organic cotton is more eco-friendly than conventional rayon, since harsh chemicals are used to process the latter. (The Lantern promises a thorough comparison of organic and conventional cotton in a future column.) There may be health benefits to switching to cotton, too, but that's a tougher call. One leading expert on toxic shock syndrome argues that you're at lower risk if you use an all-cotton tampon. But the FDA and Health Canada disagree.

Green feminine care products also trumpet the fact that they're "chlorine-free," which may not be such a useful designation. In the past, pads and tampons were typically whitened with elemental chlorine gas, a process that can create dioxins—a class of toxic, chlorinated compounds that can pollute the environment.That method was phased out about 10 years ago: These days, tampon manufacturers—"green" or otherwise—use more benign forms of bleaching, either elemental chlorine-free or totally chlorine-free. The former can "theoretically generate dioxins at extremely low levels," as the FDA notes, while the latter doesn't produce any. No one regulates the term chlorine-free, so that generic phrase can be used to describe either process. (Some women worry about their personal exposure to dioxins through tampons. It's worth pointing out that even the conventional kind contribute only a fraction of your overall exposure. Both the FDA and Health Canada state that those trace amounts pose negligible health risks.)

If you're willing to make a really radical change, there are lots of reusable options, both external and internal. There are machine-washable fabric maxi pads, for example, sold under brand names like Lunapads and GladRags. It requires some energy to clean a reusable pad, of course, but the Lantern suspects they save resources overall, provided you're committed to an energy-efficient washing regimen. (Same goes for cloth diapers.) If it were a choice between a Lunapad and a lightly packaged, nonapplicator tampon, though, it might be a close call.

The real green winner would seem to be menstrual cups, which you insert like a tampon, empty out as needed, and then rinse with soapy water and reuse for years. They've been around since the '30s, although they've never been all that popular. In the United States, you can buy versions made out of natural latex (the Keeper) or silicone (the Diva Cup and the Moon Cup).

The Lantern has met enough women who swear by these alternative products to know they're not just for crunchy hippies. But obviously, they won't fit everyone's lifestyle. What the Lantern never quite appreciated was how other people's lifestyles would be a major influencing factor. For example, what if your boyfriend isn't hip to your presoaking a used fabric pad—as is  generally recommended—in a jar on the bathroom counter? In the end, you'll just have to make a personal choice about what's more important to you: eco-friendliness or social norms.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.