Impact on landfillsIt is estimated that approximately 20 billion pads, tampons and applicators are being sent to North American landfills annually. On an individual level, each of the approximately 73 million menstruating people in North America will throw away 125 to 150kg of disposable menstrual products (or 16,800 disposable pads or tampons) in their lifetime. These products require hundreds of years to biodegrade, particularly if wrapped in the plastic bag commonly provided for this purpose as part of their packaging. In fact, every piece of plastic ever made, still exists to this day.
Thanks to Lunapads customers, 2 million+ disposable pads and tampons are diverted from landfills every month.
By choosing to use natural menstrual products like Lunapads, Lunapanties and The DivaCup, you are doing your part to help the environment. With proper care, our washable and reusable menstrual products will last for many years as opposed to 3 or 4 hours in the case of disposables. We estimate that 1 Lunapad replaces 120 disposable products. Just imagine not having to buy menstrual products at all for at least 5 years!
Resource consumption and environmental byproducts
In addition to the solid waste from disposables, there are significant resources consumed during the manufacturing processes. Disposable pads and tampons are made primarily of bleached kraft pulp or viscose rayon, the origin of which is wood cellulose from trees. Imagine what kind of processing is required to turn solid wood into the fluffy fibers found in disposable pads – in a nutshell, a lengthy series of powerful chemical baths. The rayon and pulp are further processed with a variety of bleaching agents to render them white (although not more absorbent), and then treated with another host of chemicals to enhance absorbency or add scent.
Dioxin is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S. While the jury is still out on the direct risk to human health posed by dioxin residue in disposable pads and tampons, its danger to the environment via effluent from factories is well known. In fairness, progress has been made in recent years to address this issue and oxygen-based bleaches are being increasingly adopted. That said, there has also been an increased adoption of the use of Super Absorbent Polymers (SAPs) in the pursuit of “ultra thin” pads, and disposable pads, which continue to be backed and wrapped in plastic.
Precisely what all these chemicals and substances are and what their gross environmental impact is largely unknown, particularly in the long term. Pad and tampon manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients of all their products (proprietary information) and many are only listed generically (“fragrance” as an example) on the packaging.
Lunapads, on the other hand, are made with a combination of three types of fabric, cotton flannel, cotton fleece and Polyurethane Laminate, which use their own share of resources to produce. That said, 1 menstruating person only has to buy Lunapads once every 5-10 years, as opposed to every single month for approximately 40 years. That means that the amount of resources used to make Lunapads is far, far lower than that of their disposable counterparts.
Further resources (water, detergent and energy) are required in order to capitalize on Lunapads reusable benefit. That said, Lunapads are very small and can be washed in your regular load of laundry, making the amount of water and soap required for their maintenance to be fairly minimal.
Disposables vs. Cloth
The cloth vs disposable diaper “debate” is clearly relevant to the issue at hand, as disposable menstrual pads and pantyliners are made from almost identical materials to disposable diapers - and cloth pads, like cloth diapers, require laundering.
In 1991, the Landbank Consultancy report reviewed the environmental impact of disposable diapers and concluded that compared to cloth diapers, throwaway diapers used 20 times more raw materials, three times more energy and twice as much water; overall they generated 60 times more waste. Disposable menstrual pads are made from substantially equivalent materials and ingredients as disposable diapers.
Peggy O’Mara is a highly respected author, researcher, public speaker and founder of Mothering Magazine. This is an excerpt from her editorial titled ‘A Tale of Two Diapers’ that offers a well-researched counterpoint to the argument that the energy and resources required to care for cloth diapers “cancel out” their environmental benefit.
"In 1991, Carl Lehrburger undertook a life-cycle analysis of diapers, his second study for NADS (the National Association of Diaper Services). It was the most detailed study to date of the environmental impact of single-use diapers and the first one not funded by the disposables industry. Lehrburger found that, compared to reusable diapers, throwaways generate seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process. In addition, effluents from the plastic, pulp, and paper industries are far more hazardous than those from the cotton-growing and -manufacturing processes. Single-use diapers consume less water than reusables laundered at home, but more than those sent to a commercial diaper service. Washing diapers at home, however, uses 50 to 70 gallons of water about every three days—about the same as flushing a regular-flow toilet five times a day. These 1991 figures for gallons of water could probably be improved on using today's more energy-efficient washing machines.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, 3.5 billion gallons of oil were used to produce the 18 million throwaway diapers that Lehrburger studied in 1991. Approximately 7 billion gallons of oil each year are required to feed our disposable-diaper habit today, almost four times as much oil as is estimated to be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 1991, the Landbank Consultancy, an independent environmental agency in the United Kingdom, reviewed and evaluated the available research on the environmental impact of throwaway diapers. Their conclusion: compared to cloth diapers, throwaway diapers use 20 times more raw materials, three times more energy, and twice as much water; they generate 60 times more waste.” (Emphases ours.)
This research can be applied to cloth pads versus disposable menstrual pads, but on a different scale. Cloth pads are much smaller than diapers and since they don’t contain fecal matter, they can be easily added to a regular load of existing laundry. A separate load is rarely needed and so the additional amount of water consumed to launder them is relatively insignificant. It is also worth noting that since these studies were done, most washing machines have become considerably more efficient in terms of their consumption of energy and water.
While it’s hard to create a perfectly balanced apples-to-apples comparison, we feel there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that on balance, Lunapads, and Lunapanties - particularly ones made with organic cotton are a significantly more environmentally responsible choice than disposables.
Plastic Pollution – The Bigger Picture
It’s important to contextualize the issue of disposable menstrual products within the broader spectrum of the effect that plastic waste has on the environment. Tampon applicators in particular are a sad sight on beaches, and are surely consumed by fish and birds with fatal results. While we have not been able to find current data on what exact percentage of total ocean plastic debris disposable pads, tampons and applicators occupy, our position is: the less, the better. As a historical reference point, according to the Center for Marine Conservation, over 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along US coastal areas between 1998 and 1999.
Excerpt from The Plastic Sea by Paul Watson
“A June 2006 United Nations environmental program report estimated that there are an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating on or near the surface of every square mile of ocean. We live in a plastic convenience culture; virtually every human being on this planet uses plastic materials directly and indirectly every single day. Our babies begin life on Earth by using some 210 million pounds of plastic diaper liners each year; we give them plastic milk bottles and plastic toys, and buy their food in plastic jars, paying with a plastic credit card. Even avoiding those babies by using contraceptives results in mass disposal of billions of latex condoms, diaphragms, and hard plastic birth control pill containers each year. Every year we eat and drink from some 34 billion newly manufactured bottles and containers. We patronize fast food restaurants and buy products that consume another 14 billion pounds of plastic. In total, our societies produce an estimated 60 billion tons of plastic material every year. Each of us on average uses 190 pounds of plastic annually: bottled water, fast food packaging, furniture, syringes, computers and computer diskettes, packing materials, garbage bags and so much more. When you consider that this plastic does not biodegrade and remains in our ecosystems permanently, we are looking at an incredibly high volume of accumulated plastic trash that has been built up since the mid-20th century. Where does it go? There are only three places it can go: our earth, our air and our oceans.”
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