Very few people are aware of what actually goes into the making of a sanitary napkin or a tampon, or for that matter a diaper too. In fact, in many countries globally, the law does not require manufacturers to disclose the materials and ingredients which have been used to make these feminine hygiene products.
For example, in the United States, the FDA classifies tampons and pads as medical devices, which means ingredient disclosure is not required the way it is with cosmetics. So their users are conveniently unaware of what these products really contain since it is not listed on the package. So, what does today’s super-absorbent, slim, feminine hygiene product really contain?
What complicates matters is the fact that manufacturing companies have been experimenting with various types of materials that enhance the absorbent capacity of these products and make them super cheap to produce at the same time. The modern day ultra-slim pad has evolved so much from its earlier versions that it is barely recognisable.
Even the contents have undergone many a change. Do we really know what is in these products and how they impact the users and our environment? In this article, Alsco would like to evaluate the impact of feminine hygiene products through their life cycle from manufacture to disposal.
Researchers have found that these modern pads are primarily made up of plastics and polymers i.e., they are made out of non-renewable petroleum-based products. There are layers made out of ‘polyethylene’, ‘non-woven’ and ‘highly absorbent foam’ all of which are synthetic petrochemical materials.
The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm carried out a life cycle assessment of sanitary pads and tampons. They carried out a cradle to grave assessment from raw material extraction, transportation, production, use, storage and waste management. Their analysis of the sanitary pad life cycle showed that
The crucial process in the whole life cycle is the LDPE processing. Even though cellulose constitutes more weight percent of a pad, it doesn’t have so profound environmental impacts. It is due to high energy consumption of LDPE production and using oil as a raw material which is very valuable as an energy source. That is why the main impact from pads life cycle is fossil fuel use. Foresting and cellulose processing is much more environmentally friendly than plastic production. Most of the impacts come from raw materials processing and pads production; transportation also makes its inputs but not so large.
So that slim and modern sanitary pad does significant damage to the environment, even before reaching its ultimate consumers.
These hygiene products contain a toxic chemical dioxin. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” – a group of dangerous chemical known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential. Experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems and that they are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.
Once dioxins enter the body, they tend to last a last a long time since they tend to be largely stable compounds. Thus, once they enter, dioxins have the potential to cause damage for over a long period of time.
They are present in sanitary napkins as an unwanted byproduct of the chlorine bleaching of the different materials that make up the napkins. This chlorine bleaching is what gives sanitary napkins and tampons the ultra-white ‘clean’ look. However, how ‘clean’ is clean?
Experts vary on this. The Endometriosis Association found that the severity of endometriosis in monkey’s was directly correlated to their exposure to dioxins. On the other had a study in Japan found that the risk of exposure to dioxins from sanitary napkins was negligible.
In another test of the ultra-thin pads of a particular brand of sanitary napkins being sold, it was indicated that they emit toxic chemicals, including chemicals which have been identified by many governmental agencies as carcinogens and developmental and reproductive toxins.
The chemicals found included styrene (a carcinogen), chloromethane (a reproductive toxicant), chloroethane (a carcinogen), chloroform (a carcinogen, reproductive toxicant, and neurotoxin), and acetone (an irritant). What makes matters worse is the lack of awareness amongst women of their presence since manufacturers are not required to disclose their presence.
Women’s hygiene products typically end up in the landfill. The presence of large quantities of plastics means that these are not biodegradable or compostable. A typical woman disposes of about 300 pounds of personal hygiene products in her lifetime. In the United States alone, an estimated 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are disposed of annually.
The use and throw attitude has resulted in them filling up landfills where they lie for years on end. It is estimated that sanitary napkins and diapers take between 500 – 800 years to decompose. So they remain in our environment for a very long time to come.
In fact, the Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Trash Index contains tampon applicators amongst its list of trash found in the ocean. Not only do they take years to decompose, they often end up being digested by marine life, causing irreparable damage to our already fragile oceanic eco-system.
The study quoted earlier, confirmed the presence of carcinogens and various other toxins in women’s sanitary products. In the landfills, these toxins and carcinogens seep into the soil and ground water. Some of them are volatile and released into the atmosphere over a period of time as harmful greenhouse gasses like methane.
Not only does the product adversely impact our environment, let us not forget the impact of its wrapping and packaging, both plastic and cardboard.
Switch to Safer Alternatives
Individuals can choose to use chlorine free and unscented products when available.
Use organic cotton tampons. The study by Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm found that organic cotton tampons are a greener choice.
Workplaces can do their bit too. There are greener disposal techniques available. There are green bins such as the TerraCyclic Bio Bins from Fresh & Clean. The bins have cartridges made from non-toxic plastic with biodegradable additives, making it safer to dispose into landfills.
These sleek, streamlined sanitary units are designed to fit into the smallest cubicles too. They are sealed to reduce exposure to bloodborne pathogens.
Reduce the environmental impact of your workplaces by calling a Fresh & Clean expert today. Do your bit to reduce your carbon footprint. Switch to Green today.
Image Courtesy: U.S. Army RDECOM