In the United States, women spend at least $2.8 billion a year on sanitary napkins and tampons that may take hundreds of years to decompose. Is there a more economical and environmentally friendly way? To find out, we asked about the work of Susan Powers, professor of sustainable environmental systems at Clarkson University, who compared the environmental impact of tampons, sanitary napkins and menstrual cups.
What is a menstrual cup?
The menstrual cup is a reusable feminine hygiene product. This is a small and flexible bell-shaped cup made of rubber or silicone. Women insert it into the vagina to collect and collect menstrual fluid. It can be used for up to 12 hours, after which it is taken out to process the fluid and clean it. Rinse the cup with hot water and soap between each insertion, and sterilize it in boiling water at least once per cycle. One cup can be used for up to 10 years.
Although menstrual cups have been around for decades, they have historically been less popular than sanitary napkins or tampons.
Menstrual cups are becoming more and more popular?
Yes, as women and men become more comfortable with menstrual management and discussion, their popularity is growing. They have always been the topic of news media from “Youth Fashion” to NPR. Another part of their growing popularity stems from public concerns about the solid waste associated with any disposable products, including disposable sanitary napkins and tampons.
You have been studying the life cycle of different feminine hygiene products. What is life cycle assessment? What does your research show?
Life cycle assessment provides extensive accounting and evaluation of all materials, energy and processes related to the raw materials in the product, including their extraction, manufacturing, use and disposal. The impacts considered include climate change, depletion of natural resources, human toxicity and ecotoxicity, etc.
Over the years, I have been working on a series of assessments of consumer products, energy and agricultural systems. When Amy Hait, a student of the Clarkson Honors Program, asked me about her thoughts on completing the life cycle assessment of feminine hygiene products, I was interested and happy to work closely with her to complete the research and publish the results in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.
We compared three products: rayon tampons with plastic applicators, maxipad with cellulose and polyethylene absorbent cores, and menstrual cups made of silicone.
The evaluation also includes packaging materials and the process of manufacturing and transporting these materials. In order to make a fair comparison of products, we looked at the number of products used by ordinary women in a year. According to the published average, this will be 240 tampons or maxipads. The service life of the menstrual cup is 10 years, so the annual usage is equivalent to one-tenth of the impact of the entire manufacturing and disposal.
Our assessment includes eight different categories to assess the overall environmental impact. This includes measuring the impact on the environment and human health.
Life cycle impact assessments provide quantitative scores for these individual impacts. We also used normalization factors from the United States, allowing us to arrive at the total impact score. The higher the score reflects the greater the overall impact.
Is it more environmentally friendly to use menstrual cups?
The results of the life cycle assessment clearly show that according to all environmental indicators, the reusable menstrual cup is by far the best. Based on the total impact score, the maxipad we considered in the study had the highest score, indicating a greater impact. The tampon score was reduced by 40%, and the menstrual cup score was reduced by 99.6%. The key factor in maxipad’s high score is its greater weight and the raw materials used to make it.
Most people choose reusable products because they believe it will not increase waste in landfills. But our research shows that most environmental benefits come from reducing the need to prepare all raw materials and manufactured products.
Taking a tampon as an example, the extraction and preparation of the raw materials used to make it contributes more than 80% of the total impact. The treatment that people usually pay more attention to is actually only causing water pollution, which accounts for only a small part of the overall impact.
Life cycle assessments sometimes identify surprising sources of environmental and health impacts, including dioxins from bleached wood pulp used in mats, zinc in the production of rayon used in tampons, and chromium in fossil fuel energy sources. emission. Since there is no need to produce more disposable products, we can avoid the emission of many such pollutants.
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As with any other consumer product, the more you reuse it, the impact associated with product manufacturing and disposal will be greatly reduced. Using reusable cups for even a month instead of an average of 20 sanitary napkins or tampons is still an environmentally friendly method.
What measures have been taken to encourage the use of more sustainable feminine hygiene products?
The taboo nature of talking about menstruation is changing with young women, at least in the United States. For example, women at Clarkson University collaborated with a cup manufacturer to provide a very public gift program to distribute free cups to more than 100 college students. Decades ago, when I was a student, this would never happen. Many health-related websites (such as WebMD and Healthline) provide reliable information on the proper use and maintenance of menstrual cups, which should help reduce concerns about their use and encourage more women to try them.