WHAT is the eco impact of menstruation? Or rather, of women’s sanitary pads?
Those pads may seem all soft, even cloth-like, yet many do not realise they are mainly made up of plastic – and that is before including the wrappers and packaging.
“Even the main absorbing component of the product is made up of plastic,” said environment and solid waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong.
Plastic takes “hundreds of years” to biodegrade.
“This means your great-great grandchildren will be able to see all the plastic we used still remaining on Earth,” he said.
Dr Theng estimates that the sanitary waste produced by a single menstruating woman in a year is 240 pieces. He estimates that menstruating women will produce 2.4 billion pieces of sanitary waste annually in Malaysia alone.
“That’s equivalent to around 2,400 tonnes (2.4mil kg) a year, which is around 480 garbage trucks full of sanitary pads. And this is the amount produced in just one year,” he explained.
So how much sanitary waste will one woman produce in her lifetime? Women menstruate for approximately 38 years of their lives, from the ages of 12 to 50.
Based on Dr Theng’s calculations, a woman will be using 9,120 pieces of sanitary pads or tampons throughout her menstruating years.
Although a portion of female sanitary waste from public restrooms is disposed of by specialised waste disposal companies, the majority of used sanitary pads end up in household waste and are then transported to landfills.
“Single use and disposable products, such as sanitary pads, are a big environmental problem because they keep piling up in the landfills and will stay there forever,” noted Dr Theng.
Currently, there is no waste management or recycling solution from the government to tackle sanitary waste.
“So we can’t get people to segregate their menstrual waste. We don’t have the facilities either,” he said, acknowledging that reusable menstrual products may be a solution to the growing waste problem Malaysia faces.
“But you can’t force people to use such alternatives for the sake of the environment,” he said.
For some women, the environmental impact of disposable sanitary items has led them to seek alternative products such as menstrual cups and reusable pads.
Reusable pads can be washed and then used again. But the concept of the menstrual cup is rather new to most women.
Vanessa Paranjothy, co-founder of menstrual cup brand Freedom Cups, explained that it can be likened to a reusable tampon.
“It is a small cup made of medical-grade silicone. It is folded, inserted into the body, and sits at the base of the cervix collecting menstrual fluid,” she said.
She clarified that it can be used for up to 12 hours before it is removed, washed with soap and water, then re-inserted.
“It is reusable, eco-friendly, sanitary, comfortable, and leak-free,” said Vanessa, adding that a single cup can be used for 10 to 15 years.
Vanessa underlined that Freedom Cups is her life’s calling, and has adopted a buy-one-give-one model – every cup purchased will lead to an underprivileged woman getting one for free.
“Seventy percent of women in the developing world do not have access to pads and tampons. They use things like leaves, sand, bark, and old cloth to deal with their periods. This has to change,” she emphasised.
Vanessa said that Freedom Cups has distributed over 2,000 free cups to women in six countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Philippines, India and Nepal.
In Kuala Lumpur, The Hive is a store that supports zero waste.
“The Hive was created because we have a world garbage crisis and we absolutely have to change the way we consume,” said its director Claire Sancelot.
Not only does the store offer bulk whole foods that are package-free, it also stocks eco-friendly menstruation products.
“There are simple ways we can cut down our monthly waste by having washable pads or menstrual cups,” said Sancelot.
“These two simple solutions are eco-friendly, zero waste, chemical free, and economical.”
Both the washable pads or menstrual cups will last at least 10-years, she added.
Currently, her products are imported but she hopes to develop a more affordable range of reusable pads for The Hive.
But some are resistant to these products. Ashley Tang, 28, said, “I think having to wash reusable pads is gross. Plus, what are you supposed to do with the used pad when you’re out?”
“Disposable menstrual products are just more convenient for me. I can change them when I want with ease and not have to worry about washing all these reusable products,” she said.
But when told about the environmental cost of disposable menstrual products, Tang admitted, “I’ve never really thought about it before. I didn’t know that it was made up of so much plastic.”
Making The Move
Chu Mei Fong, 27, had used menstrual pads and tampons. But the idea of stuffing a bleached tampon inside her, as well as the risk of toxic shock syndrome, made her consider other alternatives.
So she started using reusable pads after she made a new year’s resolution to reduce personal waste. Chu later switched to the menstrual cup after hearing friends rave about it.
“Both products are very appealing to me as I reduce a lot of waste and can save lots of money from not having to buy (disposable) pads every month,” she said.
Chu commented that she likes that menstrual cups are free from chemicals and bleaching agents, and says that she is “getting used to” inserting and removing the cup.
“It was easier than I expected! And I don’t feel it in me, it is as if I’m not wearing anything,” she added.
“Knowing that I’m not creating a bundle of waste from my monthly period makes me happy.”
Alternative menstrual products are still relatively unknown in Malaysia, but interest is growing.
Aminah Rahman, 33, comes from a traditional Muslim family and has always used menstrual pads.
“I go for runs often and when I’m on my period I would get rashes. It is very uncomfortable,” she shared.
“I am open to using the menstrual cup. I think it is a step forward in the right direction.”
Aminah admits that there’s a taboo in some cultures about inserting things like tampons or menstrual cups into one’s body.
“There’s a misconception that inserting these products will make you lose your virginity, but that’s wrong,” she said.
“I don’t think there should be any problem with women using menstrual cups.”
Aminah hopes to encourage her daughter to use eco-friendly menstrual products in the future.
Amanda Shiew, 25, used (disposable) sanitary pads for several years and later started using tampons when she moved to the United States for university studies.
“I would go through five or six tampons a day,” she recalled. “I would have this nagging thought in my mind about how much sanitary waste I was producing as one person.”
To help alleviate her guilt, Shiew said that she switched to tampons without plastic applicators. She was then introduced to menstrual cups through her friends in the US.
Not only is the menstrual cup easy to transport, Shiew said that it is also easy to use.
“It makes period days feel like every other day rather than a monthly inconvenience,” she enthused.
“I’m a huge advocate of menstrual cups. The initial reaction is usually shock. ‘But how does that work?’ is always the first question. Most people want to learn more.”
“Switching to a menstrual cup has been one of the best things I have ever done for myself,” shared Shiew.
“It makes my period days feel like every other day. It saves me time and money and gives me absolute peace of mind when I’m experiencing my period.”