Tampons and sanitary towels are carbon-intensive. So why aren’t the alternatives more widely used?
In the grand scheme of carbon emissions, 5.3 kg may not sound like much. But consider this: it’s the average carbon footprint of the period products used each year by a woman of reproductive age (defined by WHO as 15-49) in high income areas of Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. So multiply 5.3 by 437 million, and you have over 2.3 million tonnes of CO2 per year, or more than a quarter of the 8 million tonnes of carbon emissions produced by the entire UK public sector in 2019.
Why this story?
Confession time: I hadn’t considered the carbon footprint of period products for one moment until Rosie Hamilton said at one of our Moonshot meetings that she wanted to measure it.
She came back with a story about tampons and menstrual cups, but also about things generally – things that we buy, use and throw away with hardly a thought for how they impact the atmosphere. It’s a plea to think a little more. Giles Whittell, editor
There are few things so consistently consumed by such a significant proportion of the population as tampons and sanitary towels. Yet our understanding of their environmental impact is very limited, and is mostly focused on plastic waste rather than carbon.
Perhaps inevitably, the companies that produce most mainstream disposable period products don’t publish figures on carbon emissions. Because of this, the data we have is taken from analyses by independent bodies, which focus solely on the processing of the plastic that’s contained in pads and tampons. These studies take into account the carbon emissions from production but don’t measure emissions from collecting raw materials or distribution.
The upshot: even the 5.3 figure is much too low.
Most women in the UK, US, and Europe, manage their period with disposable tampons and sanitary towels. Estimates suggest that it’s fairly normal for a woman in these regions to use somewhere between 11,000 and 16,000 disposable products in the course of her menstruating life. In carbon emissions terms studies suggest that this equates to between 5 and 8 kg of C02 a year – hence the generally agreed-upon average of 5.3 kg.
But the WHO’s definition of women of reproductive age does not include all menstruating women. In the UK the NHS has found that female puberty occurs on average at 11– four years before these women would be recorded by WHO. The Canadian Women’s Health Network suggests a similar age for a woman’s first menstruation in the US and Canada, noting that some girls will experience their first period at 8 or 9.
Moreover, there are many more countries where disposable products are the primary way of managing periods. China, for example, is now the largest market in Asia for feminine hygiene products. In 2015 it’s reported to have produced over 85 billion sanitary towels; enough to cover the needs of 8 million women for their whole menstruating lives.
If all the 1.93 billion women the WHO estimates are of reproductive age (remembering that this is a significantly lower figure than the actual number of menstruating women) were using the average amount of disposable products, their collective carbon emissions in one year would come to over 10,178,572,567 kg, or 0.01 gigatonnes. That is a fairly hefty dent for a single product group to make in the 36 gigatonnes of carbon emitted globally each year. And it doesn’t include emissions from transport, distribution or the processing of waste.
There are alternatives. A small but growing movement in the UK and worldwide is attempting to make periods eco-friendly.
In terms of reducing carbon emissions, an upgraded solution from the 1930s emerges as the clear winner: silicon menstrual cups. They can be used for many years (usually about 10). And the silicon they’re made of emits less carbon in production than the polypropylene, rayon, polyester and polyurethane that are all regularly used in the dominant disposable period products.
A 2015 study by Dalhousie University found that carbon emissions from the manufacture and use of menstrual cups amounted to about 0.04 kg per person per year. Multiplied by WHO’s total reproductive population this would amount to just under 77 million kilograms, or 0.000077 Gigatonnes. Transitioning away from plastic-heavy disposable feminine hygiene products to reusable silicon-based ones could therefore make a big difference to the world’s carbon emissions.
Disposable products made of cotton are another carbon-friendly option. But cotton production comes with its own high environmental costs, not least in land and water. And the emissions savings are limited by the fact that these products are still disposable.
Why then are menstrual cups used by fewer than 10 per cent of menstruating women in the UK? Why do schools and health services not encourage use of and access to menstrual cups as they do for tampons and sanitary towels?
One reason is cost. Because many of the best cups are not yet manufactured at scale and are seen as “luxury” alternatives with high upfront costs, they are not accessible to the majority.
Another is space, or lack of it; the lack of universal access for women to safe and hygienic spaces to deal with a bodily function they’ve been told to keep hidden.
And a third is stigma. Lack of education and a culture of squeamishness about periods means that many women wouldn’t choose a menstrual cup even if they knew the benefits. A 2019 study involving 151 female US undergraduates – young, educated, middle class and so perhaps the primary target for alternative products – found that after discussing period management options, “reactions to an alternative menstrual product were predominantly negative, supporting prior research on stigma and shame surrounding menstruation”. The design of the menstrual cup requires a woman to confront her anatomy in a way (at best) she’s never been taught to, or (at worst) she has been taught is wrong.
It doesn’t help that companies like Procter and Gamble have gained a monopoly not only on the menstruation market, but on education. The majority of US elementary schools use P&G’s education program ‘Always Growing Up’ in their curriculum, which includes product samples. In the UK P&G run a parallel scheme called ‘About you’. It’s hardly a stretch to suggest this gives P&G a platform to promote its products.
The idea that half the human species can reduce their carbon emissions by adopting a solution that’s been around since the 1930s is exciting and hopeful. It encourages us to question what other essential items that we consume on a daily basis have become so ingrained in our normality that alternatives have been overlooked. How many millions of tonnes of carbon could small changes to these products make?
The menstrual cup story shows that reducing carbon emissions is not just a matter of the physical. It’s also a cultural issue. It will take a significant mindset change to adopt solutions that we’ve had in front of us for almost a century.
Photographs Getty Images. Graphic by Chris Newell. Illustration by Lizzie Lomax