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How do disposable sanitary products affect the environment?

Over the years, disposable sanitary products have become firmly established on the market, and are now even considered essential for all women. They are easy to use and can be found everywhere. Moreover, disposable sanitary products are so much part of our daily life that they have become the norm. These intimate products, however, are known to be made of dubious materials. This has meant that despite their practicality, they have stirred up controversy. Really, though they are harmful for our health and for our wallets, they're especially dangerous for the environment.

Are disposable sanitary products really bad for our planet?

Every month, thousands of women use disposable sanitary pads and tampons to get through their period with confidence. Then they put them in the bin without knowing, or rather, without considering, the consequences of their use...

What is the impact of manufacturing disposable sanitary products on the environment?

From the moment they are produced, sanitary pads, tampons and other disposable sanitary products harm our planet. Recently, the disposable sanitary products industry has come under pressure from the media and regulations to gradually reveal the composition of their products.

These days tampons definitely contain cotton. Even if it's natural cotton, however, this plant requires a lot of pesticides, fertilizers and water to be able to grow. In addition, the statistics are alarming: almost a quarter of all pesticides are used for cotton planting. Moreover, a kilo of cotton, whether organic or not, requires around 7,000 to 30,000 litres of water during its cultivation.

In addition to cotton, disposable sanitary products also contain rayon. Also called artificial silk or viscose, this fabric consumes a lot of water, because it takes up to 10,000 litres of water to get 1 kg of viscose. In addition, rayon is made by breaking up wood pulp in sodium hydroxide or caustic soda. The soda released from this can threaten aquatic life by increasing the pH of waterways or pollute the soil permanently by infiltrating it. Just so you know, although soda is often used to make soap, it is also useful for… unblocking toilets! After the soda bath, carbon disulphide flakes are obtained which form a paste. This is then transformed into threads which are cooled in a mixture of sulphates and sulfuric acid.

As for sanitary pads, they are mostly made from plastic, a derivative of petroleum. And plastic, as you well know, is one of nature's biggest enemies right now. This highly-absorbent gel is also a petrochemical derivative, because it is composed of crystals of sodium polyacrylate or SAP (super absorbent polymer). These small balls swell on contact with the liquid and don't seem to be biodegradable at all.

In other words, these chemical, and perhaps even toxic materials undoubtedly have a negative impact on our environment. Even if the manufacturing process follows environmental standards, sooner or later most of these products will still end up in the environment. Even worse, these products are always individually wrapped in plastic and are almost always in plastic packages. Even tampons have a plastic applicator! And sooner or later all this plastic ends up in the environment...

How do disposable sanitary products harm our planet after they've been used?

One packet of disposable sanitary products per month, that doesn't seem much, right? But if you do some quick math and calculate the number of consumers, the numbers become dizzyingly alarming very quickly.

Take France for example. On average, a French woman uses up to 275 sanitary products per year. However, more than 16 million women have periods in the whole country. In other words, all these menstruating women throw away up to 4.5 billion sanitary products a year!

If we consider this figure in terms of volume, it's the equivalent of approximately 1 million m3 of disposable sanitary products. That means it would take more than 10,000 semi-trailers with a capacity of 100 m3 each to contain all this non-recyclable waste stuffed with plastics and other chemicals.

But the worst part is that not all sanitary products end up in dumpsters and go directly to public landfills. According to francetvinfo.fr, disposable sanitary products are the fifth most common plastic waste on beaches. While Greenpeace believes that these products are one of the most polluting in the world.

That this waste is found in nature is a bad enough, but we must also remember that disposable period protection takes more than five centuries to completely break down. In the meantime, plastics accumulate on both the land and in the oceans, while the chemicals which period protections contain continue to pollute the soil as well as the water...

What are some other reasons to avoid disposable sanitary products?

The impact of the use of disposable sanitary products on the environment really is considerable. But this isn't their only downside.

They create a bad smell

Contrary to what you might think, period blood doesn't actually smell bad. It may smell a little stronger than usual blood, but it doesn't have an unpleasant odour. In fact, this bad smell is noticed when the blood comes into contact with the chemicals in the disposable sanitary products. As a result, bacteria form and cause periods which smell unpleasant.

They cause itching and irritation

Many brands have had the wonderful and (wrong) good idea of adding perfume during the production of disposable sanitary pads. Unfortunately, these synthetic fragrances are the cause of many allergic reactions. They irritate the skin and create unbearable itching.

Besides perfumes, other additives in what are sometimes called “care products” for the intimate area, can also cause allergic reactions. These include, among other things, BHT, a harmful substance that can bind to the tissues of our body.

In fact, you should be wary of single-use, scented, coloured or patterned sanitary products, as these contain substances that are almost pointless and harmful to your health.

They can affect female fertility

Sanitary products tend to be snow white. But this colour is the result of chlorine bleaching during the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, on contact with the viscose, this step generates the production of dioxins, an extremely toxic substance. Among their consequences on health, dioxins can cause hormonal changes and promote the risk of endometriosis, but also increase sterility in women.

That said, bleaching pads and tampons with elemental chlorine gas has been abandoned for over a decade now. As an alternative, manufacturers use so-called “chlorine-free” solutions that can still produce a tiny amount of dioxins. So this makes the risk smaller, but it's still very real!

They can cause toxic shock syndrome

Viscose is made of quite abrasive artificial fibres. In other words, wearing disposable sanitary protection, such as tampons or pads, can lead to micro-cuts in the skin or mucous membranes. In addition, when you remove a tampon, filaments can get trapped in the vaginal mucous membranes, or even slip into the fallopian tubes to block them!

Remember, viscose has ultra absorbent properties. But in addition to retaining blood, it also has the ability to absorb secretions, as well as the bacterial flora of the vagina. As a result, the vagina becomes drier and more vulnerable to various infections, including the dreaded and deadly toxic shock syndrome.

They are carcinogenic

As noted above, some single-use sanitary products are made with conventional cotton. This requires a high amount of pesticides and insecticides during its cultivation. Of course, these insecticides can be found in finished products, even though they are extremely toxic to our body.

Among other pesticides are glyphosate (contained in 85% of disposable tampons and pads), phthalates, halogenated derivatives, etc. These are all toxic and/or carcinogenic substances that the vaginal mucous membranes can absorb!

They are expensive

Are such flawed products really worth the price? These disposable period protections actually cost a lot more than they seem to. For a whole lifetime, spending on disposable tampons and pads can add up to thousands of dollars. Such great expense on products harmful to health which end up destroying our environment as well. While some companies get rich without worrying about the impact that their disposable protection has on the environment and on health, you too end up paying dearly for a product that is ultimately not worth it!

But are so-called “organic” disposable sanitary products better?

Faced with all this controversy around disposable sanitary products, many brands have started to offer organic disposable versions. In theory, they would therefore be healthier and more hygienic than their counterparts. But these are still very recent and even untested products. In addition, the materials used are almost the same!

With one exception, that organic cotton is used. But again, its cultivation requires a phenomenal amount of water! On top of that, some organic period protections also contain plastic (for example for the packaging and the waterproof layer). And they also end up in the trash to be burned, buried or thrown into the sea... This new kind of waste won't improve the state of your wallet either, because organic disposable sanitary products are even more expensive!

In other words, even if they are less durable than conventional disposable tampons and pads, these "organic" sanitary products are not at all the best choice when it comes to the environment!

So what are some effective alternatives to disposable sanitary products?

To solve the environmental problem of disposables once and for all, the best alternative is to turn to radical long-term solutions. To achieve this, several options are available, among others:

Menstrual cups

Menstrual cups are one of the first solutions to have been found and adopted by many women to help avoid disposable and polluting sanitary products. Also called a “cup”, it's shaped like a small cup that goes into the vagina during menstruation. There it collects the blood and you only have to empty the cup and wash it every four to six hours. So they're used a bit like tampons, but they're healthier and more environmentally friendly.

Made of silicone or latex, menstrual cups are a 100% eco-friendly alternative because they don't contain toxic chemicals, they are reusable and they can be used for up to 10 years. Even better, they are cheaper, because cups cost about 15 euros, or up to 50 euros for the more expensive brands. If you're worried about leaks, you can always use them with period panties or a reusable panty liner .

Period panties

Period panties are another alternative which have revolutionized menstruation. They are washable, reusable menstrual panties which basically work like a sanitary pad. Except that the period panties themselves contain the different absorbent and waterproof layers. Note, however, that these absorbent layers are more environmentally friendly, as they are made from natural materials such as bamboo fibre or cotton.On top of that, these period panties don't contain any toxic chemicals that may harm your health or the environment. They are also very durable, as they last for up to seven years on average. In addition, period panties can generally be worn for up to 12 hours, without any risk of leakage.

Reusable sanitary pads

Besides menstrual cups or period panties, reusable sanitary pads are also available. This alternative perfectly meets the needs of women who used to wear disposable sanitary pads, but want to stop using them for all of the above reasons.

Just like menstrual panties,  reusable sanitary pads have different layers made of natural materials such as hemp, cotton or bamboo fibre. Fortunately, their manufacture doesn't require any harmful substances, or any synthetic fragrances which could irritate women's private parts. As a result, and in addition to being a washable sanitary towel, this solution means you can be more respectful towards nature. Moreover, they can be used for up to 10 years, provided you take good care of them.

Menstrual sponges

The menstrual sponge is a sea sponge that is used like tampons. This is a less well-known solution, but is gradually winning over consumers. Except that it doesn't irritate the vagina or dry it out at all.

The menstrual sponge can also be used as a contraceptive method by creating a barrier preventing sperm from passing through the cervix. However, it must be used with a spermicide or contraceptive gel to be fully effective.

If this alternative is still not very popular, it's probably because it requires a lot of caution, especially impeccable hygiene. This means the sponge must always be cleaned when it's full (for example after a few hours) and rinsed well between each use to avoid any risk of infection.

Free instinctive flow

The last alternative that we offer is certainly the most ecological and the most minimalist, because it doesn't require any period protection at all.

Indeed, the free instinctive flow method consists of directly emptying the blood in the toilet during menstruation. Which may seem surprising, but it's effective for many followers. Of course, it takes many months of adaptation, because you have to listen to your body to know when to go to the bathroom. It's also necessary to pay keen attention to things like the arrival of your period (thanks to signs like pain or heaviness in the lower abdomen). But you will still need to focus on how you feel during your period, in order to know exactly when blood will flow into your vagina.

Conclusion

Banning disposable sanitary products from your life is certainly a great resolution. But it is no doubt an excellent choice, because in this way you can help protect our environment. As well as that, as you can see, the alternatives are numerous. You are totally spoilt for choice between reusable sanitary towels, period panties, menstrual cups and other greener methods. It's up to you to choose the best solution to suit your needs, your budget and your lifestyle.

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