Periods and Pollution: Navigating Sustainable Menstrual Practices by Annie McKernan

Periods and Pollution: Navigating Sustainable Menstrual Practices by Annie McKernan

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One of the lesser things spoken about periods is the effects they have on the oceans. Yes, we hear about how annoying they are, how painful they are, and perhaps how messy they are regarding ruined underwear and white jeans, but what about the messes they cause for our planet? Is there any chance we can clean up our act? Stick with me as I break down the nitty-gritty of the eco-side of periods and explore some easy ways to keep it green during our monthly cycles.


Why Should I Care About The Sustainability of my Period?




In the UK alone, a staggering 3.3 billion single-use menstrual products are used yearly – an overwhelming 26,000 tonnes of waste on just one small island and even worse, over 3,000 tonnes are flushed down the toilet! Unfortunately, a lot of single-use period products like sanitary towels are hard to recycle due to being made of a large variety of composite materials (NaturaCare suggest a pack of pads has the equivalent of 5 bags of plastic) and therefore can take up to 500 years to degrade in landfill, contributing to plastic waste and global warming. Flushing these products only exacerbates the problem, causing drain blockages and contributing towards ocean pollution. They then break down into micro plastics, posing a direct threat to wildlife - a distressing reality brought to light in documentaries like Blue Planet II.

Menstrual waste aside, single-use products can get expensive, with the average person spending nearly £6000 on their period in a lifetime and with 1 in 4 people having struggled financially to decide between buying period products or meals. Overall, the wide use and irresponsible disposal of single-use menstrual products can hurt our drains, our wallets, the earth and its inhabitants. Those statistics are scary, but here's the good news: in this guide, you'll discover ways to help reduce this number and make a positive impact.

Starting With Simple Fixes : Can I Help If I Can’t Use Reusable Products?

Not everybody is willing or able to switch to reusable products at the moment, and that is entirely okay. Remember, you should never feel guilty about having a period or needing certain products, and even if you can’t access reusables for any reason, you can still help make a change.

Here are some tips for reducing waste or dealing with it responsibly if you aren’t ready or able to switch to reusable products.

Stop Flushing!

This is the easiest way you can prevent plastic going into our oceans. If you are a past flusher fiend or guilty flusher, your next period is the time to redeem yourself and chuck it in the bin! FabLittleBag offer sealable sanitary bags made from vegan and sustainable materials that you can put your waste into, to hygienically dispose of in the bin or if you’re in a cinch and have no bin available, you can simply put the waste into the FabLittleBag and take it out of the cubicle to dispose of elsewhere - they offer both sanitary Fab Little Bags which are smaller and designed for things like pads, tampons and used contraceptives, or the Hygeeni, designed for larger waste like nappies, incontinence pads, sheaths, ostomy bags and catheters. 2.5 million tampons & 1.4 million pads are flushed in the UK every single day – don’t be one of them.


Stop Using Wet Wipes.

Whilst not directly period related, this seems relevant. The wet wipe is not so innocent, with 90% of wet wipes containing plastic of some kind which no doubt contributes to them causing 93% of sewer blockages. A straightforward way to reduce both menstrual waste and general bathroom waste is to stop using wet wipes, and instead simply stick with toilet paper. Alternatively, you can dampen regular toilet paper, use a soft cloth (reserved exclusively for your intimate area and washed thoroughly), or consider the eco-friendly route by installing a bidet.

Switch To More Sustainable Versions Of Single-Use Products.

Nowadays, there are so many options to choose from!

If you use tampons, perhaps consider moving towards applicator-free tampons to reduce your plastic waste, for example Lil-lets  or organic ones by NatraCare (they also do organic pads). There may be a learning curve, but some actually find it more comfortable to use their fingers for insertion rather than using plastic applicators. If you can’t give up the applicator, how about reusable or cardboard applicators such as those by Freda? There are many options like these around the internet and you can choose what suits you best.

Reminder: If you have conventional period products, still throw them in the bin or keep them in a Fab Little Bag until you can dispose of them properly.

Recycle Your Wrappers.

There are schemes like Boot’s Scan2Recycle scheme where you can recycle your pad wrappers in store and if you spend over £10 afterwards, you get £5 back! Although you don’t have to spend anything, it’s just a nice bonus if you have an Advantage Card. You do need 5 items to donate at least and you drop them off at the recycling points in store where you scan a QR code. This is yet again another way to reduce all bathroom waste, as they also take makeup containers, skincare product containers and are rolling out a blister pack scheme soon, so you can also recycle all the painkiller packets you may be using during your cycle!

Big Changes : What Are My Options If I Am Looking Into Reusable Period Products?

If you want to save money and be a sustainable superstar, this is the bit for you. Embracing reusable menstrual products is a fantastic way to both save your wallet and contribute to a healthier planet! Here are some top suggestions.

Period Underwear

Period underwear is incredibly easy to use and works especially well if you have a heavy flow. It really is just as easy as putting them on, and they can be worn for up to 12 hours. If you are the type of person who wakes up in the night to change their menstrual product or the type of person to wear night pads in the day then these are incredibly useful. There are many brands now such as NixiBody Thinx, Modibodi, All Matters, WUKA , Body Form, Saalt, Love Luna and so much more.

Interestingly, there are other period-underwear-like products such as period leggings, period swimwear and even period yoga pants!

Reusable Pads

Reusable pads are cloth alternatives to traditional pads, often featuring a button closure at the bottom instead of adhesive. They come in various shapes and sizes, and the beauty is, you can either craft your own or snag a custom-designed one from Etsy!

Removing them is a breeze – just undo the button at the bottom. You can roll them up like standard pads, or some are cleverly designed to button up a certain way to prevent leaks when closed. After, toss them into a Hygeenie bag until you get home. A quick hand wash precedes the final machine wash for a fresh start.

Menstrual Cups

Menstrual cups are bell-shaped cups made of silicone designed to be inserted into the vagina, similar to a tampon. They work by using suction to stay in place and catching the blood rather than absorbing it, which means they are far less likely than tampons to cause toxic shock syndrome.  They can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time and you simply wash it between uses. Cups can last about 10 years with good care, and only really need to be replaced if they start getting tears.

To empty your cup, you break the seal, take it out, dump the contents into the toilet and if you can, wash it (although if you can’t there’s no harm in simply wiping it with tissue, just wash it once you are able to) and you reinsert it. There is a learning curve to using cups but many report online that they don’t even feel it inside of them, and there have even been anecdotal reports of menstrual cups reducing cramps. If you would like to, you can boil or steam your cup between uses too.

There are a large variety of colours, sizes, firmnesses and shapes of menstrual cups which are usually based on your age, preferences, flow and cervix height. To make things easier for beginners, the website Put A Cup In It has made a quiz that you can take to act as a guide.

Menstrual Discs

Menstrual discs are a type of menstrual cup that work in a similar way to typical cups one by catching the blood, however they don’t use any suction – which means these may be better suited for those with an IUD than menstrual cups. You insert it similarly to a tampon and tuck it behind the pubic bone, sitting in the vaginal fornix. Nixit have a good visual guide about the placement of menstrual discs.

Caring for these is similar to caring for a menstrual cup, boiling them between uses and only needing to discard them if you notice any tears or stickiness. These can also be worn for up to 12 hours. 

Taking action

Now that you've read this article, take a moment to ponder the methods that most easily align with your lifestyle, nudging you toward a more sustainable period. Are you inclined to embrace a fully reusable approach, investing in period underwear and a cup that can last a decade without further expenditure? Perhaps you'll stick with disposables but take the responsible route, ensuring they aren't flushed and are disposed of correctly in a bin with a FablittleBag. Or maybe you're considering a middle ground, opting for a reusable applicator for your single-use tampons.