Animation kit can be downloaded at the bottom of the page
Each year, more than 2 billion disposable menstrual pads and tampons are thrown away in France. Still widely marketed and used in France and around the world, disposable menstrual protections are a source of environmental pollution and present potential risks to the health of users.
Despite numerous alerts and recommendations these last years, the presence of chemicals harmful to the environment and health remains proven today. However, reusable and healthy alternatives exist, but are not well known to this day and official information on their availability and advice on use is scarce. The glaring deficit of public information, possibly due to persistent taboos around the subject of periods, and legislative gaps (the absence of obligation to display the composition and prohibition of certain toxic compounds) remain major obstacles to the development of healthy and ecological alternatives, such as washable pads and menstrual underwear as well as menstrual cups.
Problematic products for the environment
Throughout their life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials and their manufacture to their treatment at the end of their life, disposable menstrual protections generate numerous and multiple environmental pollutions. Upstream, the manufacture of disposable protections consumes a considerable amount of resources. The two main components that are used, cotton and plastic, require large quantities of water, raw materials and non-renewable fossil resources. Pesticides used in cotton production and the many chemicals used in manufacturing (including chlorine to bleach products as well as many chemical additives) pollute water systems, groundwater and soils.
Once thrown in the trash, disposable protections, as well as their packaging (protective plastic films, applicators) will inevitably be incinerated or buried. As a reminder, incineration and landfill are two methods of treating waste which are sources of air and soil pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Tampons and towels are not recyclable and represent, with other sanitary textiles (diapers, wipes, disposable tissues, etc.) 13% of residual household waste, i.e. more than 30 kg per year per inhabitant, according to ADEME.
It also happens that menstrual pads are thrown into the toilet. Since the microparticles of plastics and other chemical substances are not all treated by treatment plants, they
permanently pollute soils and rivers and damage biodiversity. The plastic they contain takes an average of 500 years to degrade, while these pads or tampons have only been used for a few hours. Menstrual protections are frequently found in nature, and are the fifth most common type of single-use plastic waste on beaches, generating many impacts (pollution of water and marine biodiversity).
Health risks for users
Disposable menstrual pads also pose health risks due to their composition. Many chemicals can be found in menstrual protections: phthalates, BPS, glyphosate, BPA, dioxins and other petrochemical additives or residual pesticides, including glyphosate. Beyond the irritations, intolerances and allergies that they can cause for some women, some of these substances are known to be endocrine disruptors and to be associated with various reproductive disorders, hormonal dysfunctions and cancers. Although they rarely exceed health thresholds, these toxic substances resulting from the contamination of raw materials or manufacturing processes are directly absorbed by the skin.
In the absence of binding regulations for manufacturers to display the composition of these products, the brands are not very transparent on the components used and their effects on health. The fact remains that most of the products still contain toxic substances, despite the latest ANSES report recommending that manufacturers improve the quality of these products in order to eliminate or minimize chemical compounds with carcinogenic effects or endocrine disruptors.
Zero waste menstrual protections as sustainable alternatives
More and more brands have developed in recent years to offer healthy and sustainable alternatives to disposable menstrual protections. Menstrual cups, washable pads and underwear, zero waste alternatives are gaining popularity, for both environmental and health benefits. With a lifespan of 5 to 10 years, reusable menstrual protections represent a real solution to reduce the waste related to menstruation and more generally, single-use plastics. Designed to last a long time, they reduce resource use and are less likely to be flushed down the toilet or left in the wild.
Due to their composition, reusable alternatives are generally healthier. Certified washable pads and underwear are mostly made from natural fibers (cotton, hemp, silk), which according to the brands are certified organic (GOTS certification), as well as from synthetic materials that can benefit from OEKO-TEX certification, which guarantees the absence of undesirable substances for health and for the skin and thus reduces the risks of contamination for users. Menstrual cups are made of medical grade silicone or latex. Most of their manufacturers (including a number of French brands) also claim greater transparency in the composition of menstrual protections, ensuring better quality and non-toxicity of their products.
The investment in the purchase of reusable protections is certainly greater, but the duration of use makes this investment profitable. Over 5 years, a menstrual cup or a batch of washable pads can save 175 to 245 euros.
Zero Waste France’s proposals to remove political obstacles
Despite the rise of reusable and healthy menstrual protections, they are still far from being widespread today. This is due to the lack of public policies aimed at informing and educating citizens and healthcare professionals about these reusable alternatives and how to use them. The disposable is therefore often put forward as the only solution available, and also benefits from flexible regulations, which avoid manufacturers having to indicate on their products the presence of potentially toxic substances. Faced with this observation, Zero Waste France offers two priority policy areas which will help reduce the exposure of menstruating women to toxic substances and reduce the environmental impact of menstrual protection:
→ Launch a national information and awareness program on reusable menstrual protection, in collaboration with several ministries (health, women’s rights, environment, education). It seems appropriate to prioritize middle school students, who often lack reliable information on menstruation, and health professionals (family planning, gynecologists, midwives, nurses, etc.), brought to advise women on these issues.
→ When devices for free or low-cost distribution of menstrual protection are put in place to combat menstrual precariousness, systematically offer a reusable alternative to allow women to avoid monthly expenses.
→ Develop within the framework of the REACh regulation a specific regulation for menstrual protections and more restrictive on their composition and manufacture, by making compulsory the display of components and by prohibiting carcinogens, mutagens, toxic for reproduction in disposable protections.
An animation kit to publicize and generalize zero waste menstrual protections
To publicize and popularize the use of these alternative protections with target audiences (users, health and education professionals, general public), Zero Waste France has designed an animation kit with educational information tools allowing to raise awareness among different audiences about the impacts of disposable protections and ecological alternatives.
Download the animation kit
A campaign serving the Sustainable Development Goals
The SDGs launched by the United Nations are the 17 priorities of economic and social development, concerned with respecting populations and the foreseeable planet by 2030. The development of healthy and sustainable menstrual protections contributes to several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched by the United Nations for economic and social development, concerned with respecting populations and the foreseeable planet by 2030. – Objective 3: Allow everyone to live in good health and promote the well-being of all at all ages – Objective 4: Quality education – Objective 5: Gender equality – Objective 12: Responsible consumption and production – Objective 13: Measures relating to the fight against climate changeTo learn more on the sustainable development goals
This work has received financial support from the European Commission.
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