Updated: Feb 27, 2021
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is what’s on everyone’s mind right now. Trust me, we’re thinking about it too. However, amidst all the horrific news we hear on a daily basis about the thousands of casualties and new infections, there does seem to be a silver lining. Images taken by NASA of some of the hardest hit regions from Wuhan, China to Northern Italy show a striking reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollutants in the air. This decrease in emission is most probably due to the decline of vehicles on the road and active industrial sites. So during this stressful time, being eco-friendly may not be at the forefront of our mind, but nevertheless it still remains a critical issue¹.
When it comes to decreasing our carbon footprint, we often think about our usage of plastic bags and bottles, wastage of food and water, and air pollution. But one thing that is overlooked is the vast amount of menstrual products used and discarded every month. An average woman uses about 240 tampons or pads a year, leading to more than 17,000 in a lifetime. This amounts to a total of 5.3kg of CO2 emissions per year. Most of these products are made of 90% crude oil plastics and cannot be recycled or decomposed².
However, there are other alternatives to the conventional pads in the market. The most environmentally friendly are biodegradable and compostable pads. Biodegradable items can be broken down and decomposed into the environment and are usually plant or animal based. Compostable items, on the other hand, are made of organic matter that breaks down into a product that can help the environment, such as fertilizer. The key thing is that although all compostable items are biodegradable, not all biodegradable items are compostable.
Organic pads, usually made of cellulose and cotton, ensure that chemicals don’t leak into the soil and water when disposed of³. A single pad or tampon takes over 5 times the lifespan of the woman using them to decompose. Meanwhile, organic pads and tampons only take about 5 years⁴.
Not only do organic pads play a significant role in reducing our carbon footprint, they are also more breathable than those made from synthetic fibers. According to Dr. Suruchi Desai, the consulting OBGYN at Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital in Mumbai, “Organic pads contain an absorbent cellulose core which locks away menstrual fluid to keep you dry, and a soft organic cotton cover that allows your skin to breathe.” Organic pads are also more comfortable than synthetic pads, which contain tons of chemicals and can cause skin irritation.
A study conducted by Women’s Voices for the Earth in August 2014 found that the sanitary products of the popular menstrual pad company Always emit dangerous toxins. Many of these chemicals can be carcinogens, and reproductive and developmental toxins. Unfortunately, this is not a well known fact because Always isn’t required to disclose all of the contents of their material⁵.
However, organic pads are usually made up of compostable cellulose wood pulp, plant starch, and unbleached cotton, all of which are non-toxic and non-carcinogenic.
Critics of organic pads argue that they are quite costly, but this isn’t always the case. Some organic pads such as LunaPads and Tree Hugger are reusable, thus saving a substantial amount of money in the long run. When this is taken into account along with the rest of the benefits, it is clear that organic pads are the way to go!
One organization that has been actively prioritizing the environment for years is Aakar Innovations, an Indian company that produced India’s first certified compostable sanitary napkins. Not only do they promote environmental sustainability, but they also advocate for financial sustainability for rural women and girls by connecting them to urban women.They focus on employing women who have limited opportunities and empower them to learn a variety of skills⁶.
(image source: aakarinnovations.com)
During Project Stree’s menstrual health workshop in Vadadla Primary School in Gujarat, India, we donated packages of Aakar Innovations’ Anadi pads to the attendees. Each girl was provided two packets of the compostable sanitary napkins and was equipped with the information on how to use and properly dispose of the pads. To learn more about our workshop, check out our impact page.
While plastic pollution may seem like a daunting and pervasive issue, we can begin to tackle it by focusing our attention to our regular habits. Menstrual products, which are used on a monthly basis by millions of females, are a great place to start. The next time you take a trip to the grocery store to purchase a pack of sanitary pads (while exercising proper social distancing, of course) consider checking out some of the organic pads on the shelf!