In the United States, approximately 12 billion disposable pads are thrown away each year. In Canada, disposable pad sales increased to $258.21 million CAD in 2020. Globally, disposable pads have a market value of $23.9 million USD, projected to rise to $28 million by 2024. While these numbers look great from a business standpoint, it has a massive negative impact on the environment.
How Much Plastic is in Your Disposable Pads?
Ninety percent of a single menstrual pad is made out of plastic. The top layer is often made out of plastic woven sheets, the absorbent part is made of polyacrylate gels which contain plastic, and the back part with adhesive is obviously made of more plastic. And oh, let’s not forget the wrapper and packaging. This amount of plastic and the number of disposable pads used each year is an alarming combination.
In some parts of the world, locals are beginning to rethink disposable pads and are making them using more sustainable materials like banana fiber. However, for the most part, people are still using what’s easily and readily available in the market - plastic-filled pads.
Recycling is Sorta Impossible
An even bigger problem here is that disposable pads are practically impossible to recycle. They break down, like any other plastic material. But it will take approximately 500 years. Given that the main purpose of pads is to absorb blood, that alone makes the idea of recycling it seemingly unhygienic. Technically classified as medical waste, the only end-of-life destination for a disposable pad is landfill.
Why Should We be Concerned
So let’s try some simple math here. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (ACOG) recommends changing your pad every 4-8 hours. That’s 3-6 pads used per day. Let’s say a menstruator experiences four days of normal to heavy flow period. This means they use 12-24 pads per month or 144-288 pads per year. And this is only one person we’re talking about.
Across the globe, menstruation is seen differently. In some countries, it remains taboo and menstruators are shunned if not shamed. Or both. It is often in these same countries where disposable pads cost higher than they typically do in western countries. Menstruators here resort to cheaper alternatives like rags and cotton. But is setting a higher price a potential solution to pressure manufacturers to figure out something better and more eco-friendly?
If we go back to Western countries, probably not. Here, if prices spike, we’re wired to work harder in order to afford it. And if we’re talking about disposable pads, a necessity to so many young folks, we will definitely find a way to purchase it.
How Can We Do Better?
Sustainable pads can be the solution. And thankfully, more and more companies are exploring this. There are now options in the market for disposable pads that use organic cotton instead of those plastic gels. There are also companies that sell washable pads and period underwear. And yes, there are more eco-friendly options for tampon users too. Tiny steps but steps, nonetheless.
Ultimately, decreasing the amount of plastic pollution caused by disposable pads lies in the hands of consumers. If we collectively refuse to use the typical pads we’re used to using, there will be less and less demand for it. If we consciously choose to go the eco-friendly route or what is called green menstruation, there will be less pads thrown in the trash each year. And if we continue to talk about this problem openly and loudly, we might just be able to pressure manufacturers to find better ways to make this necessary product.
There’s no be-all end-all solution to this problem and there’s definitely no overnight solution. This requires a collective effort, collective voice, that tells the world we are just using way too much plastic in this single type of product alone. We must do better. And maybe, just maybe, we can look at what other countries are doing. Perhaps there are some promising solutions out there.
Tammy Danan is a freelance storyteller based in the Philippines. She reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers film, photography, and sustainability and how they intersect with our everyday life. Her words have appeared in Al Jazeera, VICE, Ozy, ZEKE Magazine, Audubon.org, and others.