Although their use varies in different countries worldwide, tampons are the most widely used menstruation product in the U.S. In 2018, we bought 5.8 billion of them. In terms of the environment, the focus is firmly on disposable cups and plastic straws, but menstruation waste is slowly becoming more talked about. Here we take an impartial look at their ‘green’ credentials – are tampons bad for the environment?
Firstly, what are tampons made from?
To get an indication of whether an item is eco-friendly or not, a good place to start is determining what it is made from. Tampons are, generally, made from cotton and/or rayon (a man-made cellulosic fiber derived from plants). Plastics are also a key ingredient for some brands – often a layer of polyethylene or polypropylene can be found in the main part of the tampon and even in the string! The tampon applicators, the tube that helps with insertion, are generally made from plastic or cardboard.
So, are tampons bad for the environment?
Plastic-related environmental issues
Each tampon only contains a small amount of plastic each – however, the sheer volumes involved are staggering. Using plastics causes significant issues for the environment. Most plastics are derived from fossil fuels. As well as being a non-renewable resource, when extracting them from the environment they can have a significant negative impact including water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation. The manufacture of tampons, clearly, does not keep the fossil fuel industry afloat on its own – but it certainly contributes to the problem.
Plastic manufacturing is also resource-intensive. As well as being one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce, it is also extremely thirsty. Gallons of water are needed during the manufacturing process, particularly in the heating and cooling phases.
Cotton uses a LOT of water
The water footprint refers to how much fresh water is used in the production of an item. Cotton has an extremely high water footprint. This is an important factor because any fresh water used may be being diverted from ecosystems which need it to thrive. The WWF predict that by 2025 two-thirds of the global population may face water shortages if we carry on using water the way we do currently. The conventional production of cotton contributes significantly to this concerning prediction.
Chemicals associated with tampon production
Pesticides – chemicals used to kill pests such as insects – are used widely when growing cotton. In fact, the cotton industry is estimated to be responsible for one-sixth of all chemical pesticides used worldwide. Pesticides can find their way into waterways and harm aquatic wildlife and pollute soil. They decrease the quality of the soil and reduce plant growth. Wildlife may also have to relocate, or may even starve, if their food source has been sprayed with pesticide.
Cotton also requires a significant amount of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer to grow optimally. Scientist also claim that those fertilizers used in cotton production are the most harmful to the environment. They can run into water bodies, such as rivers and streams, and affect the delicate ecosystems that exist. They can even cause dead zones in the water bodies that they end up in – these contain a much decreased level of oxygen.
Rayon production also comes with a significant amount of chemical-use. To make rayon, plant cellulose is mechanically pulped. The pulp is then chemically treated. Toxic chemicals used in this process – as well as bringing their own production carbon footprint – can harm the environment and health of those living nearby.
Most tampons are not (fully) biodegradable or compostable
Although more eco-friendly tampons are coming on the market, the majority still contain plastic. The cotton and rayon elements will biodegrade with the help of bacteria. But unfortunately, plastic will not biodegrade – and so it is not suitable for the compost pile. Plastics will break down eventually into smaller and smaller pieces, but this is not the same as biodegradation. It does not return to nature – it simply gets smaller and these microplastics can cause harm to the environment.
Since composting is not an option (for standard tampons) – nor recycling – these will likely end up in landfill via the trash. This brings significant environmental impacts from the release of greenhouse gases (contributing to climate change) to contamination of local waterways and soils.
The bottom line
Whilst plastic-free, organic cotton tampons are becoming more commonly available, these are very much the exception. During production of their core ingredients, standard tampons create havoc for the environment. Plastic manufacture relies on fossil fuels whilst (non-organic) cotton and rayon production leads to high levels of chemicals being released into the environment. Even after their use, standard tampons will continue to cause problems – with plastic a key feature in many tampons, they will likely live on in landfill forevermore