Monday, April 26, 2010

How Ditching Pads and Tampons Can Save The World

Those of you who are close to me know how much I love Menstrual Cups. When I began to hash this post out, I was simply going to rave about how amazing menstrual cups are.

And believe me, they are. They last for up to 10 years, can be worn for up to 12 hours, are hypoallergenic, have no TSS risks, don’t suck away the body’s natural fluids, are easy to carry, easy to transport, and are really cheap. Plus it’s my personal opinion that because they require manual removal by putting your fingers in your vag that they eventually make you less grossed out about periods, and help you to become more connected to what’s going on with your body.

But this post is not about all that stuff. This post is specifically going to speak to helping you all think more critically about how pads and tampons affect the environment.

DUDES. FELLAS. GUYS. PEOPLE WHO DON’T MENSTRUATE. This post is for you too. Even though I know that you don’t surf the crimson wave, I’m assuming that you may know one person who does. Maybe you have a wife or a girlfriend. Maybe you have a sister or a mom or an aunt or a daughter. Maybe you have a female friend. Maybe you know someone with a uterus. Even though you can’t use a menstrual cup, you can forward this post along or have a conversation with your uterus bearing acquaintance.

So let’s get on with it!

Pads and Tampons made by mainstream companies (Tampax, Kotex, OB, Playtex, Always, etc), are made in such a way that they do not biodegrade. This means that when you use these products, they will sit in a landfill far after you’ve stopped menstruating and even long after you’re no longer on this earth (either because of interplanetary travel or, you know, death).

And I’m not just talking the actual pads/tampons themselves. There are also the plastic tampon applicators, the plastic packaging that the pads/tampons come in, and any plastic packaging used to sell the products in multiples (assuming it’s a non-recyclable plastic).

All of it becomes waste that just sits in a landfill forever.

How much waste? Let’s do some math!

• Tampons are about 5 cubic inches in size.
• Since I’m supposed to change my tampon every 4-6 hours, I’ll probably use about 6 per day.
• If my cycle is 5 days, that’s 30 tampons.
• Every cycle, I will create about 150 in3 (or .01 ft3) of waste that will sit in a landfill forever.
• If I menstruate from the age of 11 to the age of 51 every 28 days; that means that I will have 521 cycles over the course of my menstruating life.
• Over the course of my lifetime, I will leave behind 78,150 in3 (45 ft3) of non-biodegradable waste.
• To reiterate that, I will leave behind a box that measures 3’ x 3’ x 5’ of used tampons (plus all of the plastic waste that came with my tampons) as a gift the next generation has to deal with. (And that box will be larger if I use pads.)

Now a 3’ x 3’ x 5’ box doesn’t seem like all that much space. Except, I hate to break this to you all, I am not the only menstruating woman in the world.

There are about 3 billion women in the world, actually. At some point in their lives, if not currently, most of these women will experience menstruation. Which means that even though I only fill a small box personally, if even a quarter of the women in the world use mainstream tampons … we’re working together to create some serious long-lasting waste.

To counterpoint this with Menstrual Cups; here’s some more math:
• Menstrual Cups are about 1.6 in3 (.0009 ft3) in size.
• Over the course of my lifetime, I might go through 5 menstrual cups.
• Which means, if the cup doesn’t biodegrade (some do), I will leave 8 in3 (.005 ft3) of waste behind.
• To reiterate, that is a box that is 2” x 2” x 2” of waste over the course of a lifetime. (Note that this is a tiny 2 inch cube, and the last example was a box measured in feet).
• The cardboard box (if it came in one) and the paper instructions, along with the fabric bags I carried my cup in were all recycled or will biodegrade.

In addition to landfill space, there’s also the manufacturing process to think about. Now, I’m not a tampon manufacturer and I surely don’t know the process involved, however I’m assuming that to manufacture tampons, one needs electricity, raw materials, chemicals, and water.

Which are things you also need in manufacturing menstrual cups.

But, because I’m all about math right now, let’s look at this in numbers again.

• If we go back to the 30 tampons per cycle and 521 cycles in a lifetime model, over the course of my lifetime, I will need 15,360 tampons.
• Let’s say I buy my tampons in 20 packs. This means I’ll need 782 packs of tampons over the course of my lifetime.

In thinking about my tampon use, I need to think about more than just the waste that results when I discard my tampons. I also need to think about all the resources required to make them AND the resources required to make the packaging my tampons come in. (Not to mention the shipping process that gets them into stores).

I need to think about this with menstrual cups too, but over the course of my lifetime, I may only need 5.

15,360 is way more than 5. 782 is way more than 5.

So even if it takes more resources to make 1 menstrual cup than it does to make 1 tampon, I’m using so many less menstrual cups that in the battle of both product and packaging manufacture, using tampons results in a much greater environmental strain.

Not to mention that tampons and pads are manufactured with chemicals (bleaching agents, adhesives, etc) that (while being bad for your body) also leach into the soil after you’ve thrown them away.

Now in terms of why they’re manufactured this way, I have no answers for you. But I can tell you that you’re not powerless in all this.

So what can you do?

Depends on your commitment. I’ll break it down for you:

Starting Small:
• Switch to tampons that don’t use applicators or that use cardboard applicators instead of plastic applicators, thereby getting rid of applicator waste.
• Use the smallest pads/tampons possible for your flow to cut down on the number of pads/tampons you’re using per cycle. (Don’t, however, leave them in/on longer as that could result in TSS or infection.)
• Switch from pads to tampons.
• Forward this post to other people you think should know about this.

Getting Serious
• Switch to 100% cotton pads/tampons (Natracare, 7th Generation, etc) because they will biodegrade AND because their packaging is often paper-based and recyclable.
• Write to the mainstream pad and tampon companies asking why they’re not making environmentally conscious products.
• Ask your local drug stores, health food stores, and other retailers to have products like 100% cotton pads and tampons, cups, and reusable pads in stock.

Go Big or Go Home
• Switch to a menstrual cup (Moon Cup, Diva Cup, The Keeper, Miacup, Lunette).
• Switch to a washable, reusable pad (Glad Rags, Lunapads, etc.)
• Start a petition to major corporations demanding they change the way their products are made.
• Start a petition asking major tampon/pad companies to start manufacturing a line of ‘Green’ products.
• Petition large retailers (like Target, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, etc) to carry products like cups, reusable pads and 100% cotton products for purchase.

In Conclusion

Go Green! And although I didn’t mention this specifically, this is one of those instances that by going green, you’re also going to save some green. Do I hear more math? Hell yeah!

• So, we’ve already discovered that I’m going to use 15,360 tampons over the course of my life.
• I randomly looked up tampons on Amazon and the cheapest deal I could find was $.15 per tampon.
• Which brings my lifetime grand total to: $2304 (pre tax and shipping).

• I’ve estimated 5 menstrual cups over a lifetime, but I’m going to up it to 10 for this example (people lose things, burn things, etc).
• On Amazon (although I’ve found them cheaper elsewhere) the cheapest cup price is $22.
• Which brings my lifetime grand total to: $220 (pre tax and shipping).

A total savings of: $2084

By switching to a cup, you’ll be saving your bank account AND the world.

Keep Thinking



  1. hey becca, i love the idea of the menstrual cup, and i bought one from you a few years ago. unfortanately, i have never been able to successfully use it because i haven't been able to properly insert it without it causing pain or coming back out. it is definitely not an issue of being squeamish or uncomfortable. the only thing i can think of is that it has to do with the fact that i was recently told during an ultrasound that i have an inverted uterus. could this be a cause? do you have any suggestions as to how to overcome this, or how to insert it? perhaps there's a trick i don't know?

  2. Hi Erin!

    So, I personally have no insight to offer in terms of tilted uteri and menstrual cups.

    However, the great thing about Menstrual Cups is that they have a great online community surrounding their use.

    If you go to this site, they may have some answers for you.

    Good luck!

  3. Much more needs to be said about the awesomeness of cloth pads! I also have issues that make wearing a menstrual cup uncomfortable, so cloth pads are the perfect solution for reducing waste, saving money and not having chemicals near my body. I made mine (it's a pretty simple sewing project) so all I had to buy was the fabric. No plastic involved! Also, I get some really stylin' pads with cute fabrics, which makes a painful time of the month a fun occasion.

  4. Tanya! Thanks so much for repping reusable pads!

    I think that they're an absolutely wonderful choice for those out there that prefer an non-internal method. I think they're also wonderful for folks who are crafty enough to sew their own!

    Mad props, and thanks for the comment.