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If we want to protect our oceans, disposable sanitary products must become more sustainable

If we want to protect our oceans, disposable sanitary products  must become more sustainable

Tessa Corina | Dods Monitoring

3 min read

Throw-away menstrual products are contributing to plastic pollution at an alarming rate, writes Tessa Corina.


Public and parliamentary outrage over plastic pollution is continuing to gain momentum. But in this dialogue, the main culprits are identified as plastic straws or plastic bags, and disposable sanitary products often remain unspoken of, quite like the menstrual cycle itself.

Increasing attention needs to be paid to the impact of sanitary products on climate change and pollution of oceans, from production to disposal.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recently published a report on single use plastic, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report on Oceans and the Cryosphere, published this week, highlights how microplastics, and climate change, have become a major concern for the ocean.

But in these high-level discussions, sanitary products often remain invisible.

The problem with plastic

As has been rigorously documented, plastic contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at every stage of its lifecycle, and frequently ends up in our rivers and seas when disposed of incorrectly.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth. Their management as a waste product through incineration and sanitary landfills also contributes to emissions. Indeed, in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan published in 2018, it was reported that 8.3bn tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.

Without urgent action to cut demand, this is likely to rise to 34bn tonnes by 2050.

Plastic-free periods

Throw-away menstrual products are contributing to plastic pollution at an alarming rate. Natracare reported that 45bn menstrual products are used every year, and an average of 11,000 disposable products will be used in a woman’s reproductive lifetime.

Single-use plastics are a popular choice of material for producers, which don’t just create emissions in their production, but often make their way to landfill or our oceans.

Most tampons have a plastic applicator along with plastic wrapping, and there is often a small film of plastic inside the tampon to aid insertion and to stop fibre shredding, which is not biodegradable.

Sanitary towels are also made up of roughly 90 percent plastic, and this makes it harder for them to be broken down once they enter the sewage system, often taking as long as 500 years to decompose.

Flushing sanitary products down toilets is one of the key ways that plastic makes its way into our oceans - it has been documented that on average, 1.4m period products are flushed down the toilet every day in the UK. Shockingly, during the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Clean in 2018, on the 494 beaches across the UK that were cleaned, volunteers found on average 580 tampon applicators, and 862 panty liners.

What now?

It is evident that disposable sanitary products are a cause for concern both in the context of climate change, but also in the health of our oceans.

Indeed, dialogue on the plastic epidemic is amplifying at encouraging rates, but whilst the menstrual cycle remains a taboo topic, it is…To view the rest of the article and download a FREE two-week look ahead, click here.  

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