Spending billions on advertisements and years of marketing “shame” to women led to the health and pollution crises they currently face.
A couple of years ago, National Geographic published a lengthy and fascinating story about “how sanitary pads and tampons became unsustainable”.
These two products, commonly used during a woman’s monthly period cycle, are now filled with microplastic, 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.
Legally, menstrual waste is considered medical waste, so it doesn’t have to be tracked. Because of this, there is very little research to show exactly how much plastic is being generated. But the quantity is most likely to be enormous.
According to GlobeNewswire, “In 2020 alone, people in India spent ₹70.2 Billion on feminine Hygiene Products. It is an estimate that throughout a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere in between 5 to15 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 India, the act of hanging menstrual cloths out to dry was seen as embarrassing, an admission of contamination. Unfortunately, this has still prevailed in our nation. Hence, this led to the meteoric rise in disposable products, which kicked off in the 1920s.
Those early tampons and pads were based on World War One-era technology for bandages called Cellucotton, first adopted by nurses and then used more widely once women realised 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 into decades of purchases).
The technology continued to march forward, with women discouraged from touching their genitals while inserting tampons 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. Finally, individual wrappers came along to make these products more portable, with a “softer, quieter wrapper to help keep it secret” — as if menstruating is something for women to be ashamed of.
However, as public awareness spreads about the enormity of the plastic pollution crisis, women are rebelling against the idea that they have to stuff toxic 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 due to traces of glyphosate (herbicide), carbon disulfide (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 “massive 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. Improved women’s health is just one of many benefits that plastic reduction will have on our world.