How Did Our Periods Get So Full of Plastic?

Public Domain. Unsplash / Josefin

National Geographic published a lengthy and fascinating story this month about how sanitary pads and tampons became so unsustainable. These two products, commonly used during a woman's monthly period cycle, are filled with plastic, from the wrapping to the applicator to the absorbent pad itself. The article offers a fascinating look into how having a sense of shame about menstruation has driven this plastic-centric design.

Because menstrual waste is considered medical waste, it doesn't have to be tracked, and there is very little research to show exactly how much is being generated. But the quantity is most likely enormous:

"In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste."

The root of the problem is that women have, for countless generations, been told that menstruating is dirty. Ancient civilizations treated it as 'bad blood', forcing women to separate themselves from the rest of society till the cycle ended. In 19th-century America, the act of hanging menstrual cloths out to dry was seen as embarrassing, an admission of contamination. Hence, the meteoric rise in disposable products, which kicked off in the 1920s.

These early tampons and pads used World War One-era technology for bandages called 'Cellucotton', first adopted by nurses and then used more widely once women realized how absorbent it was. National Geographic writes,

"What all of the new products had in common was disposability. Marketing campaigns leaned into the idea that the new products would make menstruators 'happy, well-poised, efficient modern women,' free from the tyranny of old 'makeshift' strategies. (Disposables also meant that menstruators would have to stock up each month, locking them in to decades of purchases)."

The technology continued to march forward, with women discouraged from touching their genitals when inserting tampons, and so applicators (first cardboard, then plastic) were invented. Wraparound sticky wings came next to keep pads firmly in place – useful for women, but still more plastic. Products were infused with phthalate-laden, hormone-disrupting fragrances to mask the period smell. Individual wrappers came along to make these products more portable, including Kotex's 2013 "softer, quieter wrapper to help keep it secret" – as if menstruating were still something for women to be ashamed of.

As public awareness spreads, however, about the enormity of the plastic pollution crisis, women are rebelling against the idea that they have to stuff plastic into the most sensitive part of their bodies. They are beginning to understand the nasty side effects that come from using conventional disposable menstrual products, from yeast infections and vaginal irritations, to traces of glyphosate (herbicide), carbon disulphide (reproductive toxin used to make rayon), and methylene chloride (a paint stripper), to lacerations in the vaginal wall caused by tampon particles.

It's no wonder that many women are now exploring alternatives, such as menstrual cups and washable pads and all-natural, plastic-free tampons. Susannah Enkema, a researcher at sustainability marketing agency Shelton Group, told NatGeo that there has been a "tectonic shift in the way women are thinking about managing their periods." As the stigma surrounding menstruation dissolves, it opens the doors for cleaner, greener, safer, and more economical options for women.