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The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products

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Faced with the next big environmental challenge of disposable feminine hygiene products, Natracare finds an eco-friendly solution.

Close to 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators are dumped into North American landfills every year. [1] When wrapped in plastic bags, feminine hygiene waste can take centuries to biodegrade. The average woman uses over 11,000 tampons over her lifetime, leaving behind residue far beyond her lifespan. [2]

This colossal waste burden however, isn’t the only ecological impact of disposable feminine hygiene products. A Life Cycle Assessment of tampons conducted by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, found that the largest impact on global warming was caused by the processing of LDPE (low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from the monomer ethylene) used in tampon applicators as well as in the plastic back-strip of a sanitary napkin requiring high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy. [3] A year’s worth of a typical feminine hygiene product leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents. [4]

Exhibit 1 [5]

tampon

Over 50% of the world’s population menstruates, and yet conversations about feminine hygiene and the ecological impact of product choices woman make in the space, wasn’t spoken about. In fact, the taboo surrounding menstrual periods stunted the development of new products in the space with little to no innovations for over 80 years. [6]

Major corporations such like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have argued that ther would be tremendous friction involved in shifting consumer behavior away from disposable products to reusable ones. Ultimately, driven by profit motives, it seems unlikely these companies would shift towards a reusable product line. Menstrual cups, reusable pads and sponges are readily available but haven’t gained much traction so far. Born out of a need to reduce this ecological footprint, Natracare, founded in 1989, was the world’s first environmentally responsible yet disposable alternative to the conventional tampon or pad. [7]

Natracare manufactures organic pads and tampons made from sustainable materials that are compostable, biodegradable and a 100% plastic free. The company’s mission is to research, develop and monitor sustainable solutions for reducing the environmental impact of feminine hygiene products and waste. They are highly conscious about sustainably sourcing from raw material producers that share their mission and manage resources respectfully. By eliminating the use of fossil fuel energy required to process plastic for production as well as creating a biodegradable product that doesn’t clog landfills, Natracare has significantly reduced the carbon footprint of its products. [8] A typical woman’s use of Natracare products will generate a carbon footprint of 3.4 kg CO2 equivalents a year, a roughly 35% reduction to the impact she would have caused by using a conventional tampon or pad.

There is an urgent need to innovate and find sustainable and yet practical solutions to feminine hygiene challenges. The problem with stigma is that it often denies women a vocabulary to deal with the issues around menstrual health and hygiene. Open dialogue is the first step in changing the way women deal with menstruation and can create awareness around the need make a switch.

End notes:

[1] Why Switch to Healthy, Reusable Menstrual Alternatives? | Lunapads.com. 2016. Why Switch to Healthy, Reusable Menstrual Alternatives? | Lunapads.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://lunapads.com/learn/why-switch?geoip_country=US. [Accessed 31 October 2016].

[2] Safe Cosmetics. 2016. Cumulative Exposure And Feminine Care Products – Safe Cosmetics. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/healthandscience/cumulative-exposure-and-feminine-care-products/. [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[3] Google Books. 2016. Greeniology 2020: Greener Living Today, and in the Future – Tanya Ha – Google Books. [ONLINE] Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=2u04beimoTwC&pg=PA73&lpg=PA73&dq=tampons+climate+change&source=bl&ots=0YNkw8cmw5&sig=3NZkx85EIEFazrdhpOkTffJpAOQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwib5dzSr47QAhUFTSYKHdjXBD8Q6AEIPDAG#v=onepage&q=tampons%20climate%20change&f=false. [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[4] The Eco Guide. 2016. A menstrual cup? Is that what is sounds like? Gross. | The Eco Guide. [ONLINE] Available at: http://theecoguide.org/menstrual-cup-what-sounds-gross. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[5] The Chic Ecologist. 2016. The Environmental Impact of Everyday Things. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thechicecologist.com/2010/04/the-environmental-impact-of-everyday-things/. [Accessed 02 November 2016].

[6] Fortune. 2016. Meet the Entrepreneurs Disrupting the Feminine Care Industry. [ONLINE] Available at: http://fortune.com/2016/03/30/5-period-startups/. [Accessed 03 November 2016].

[7] Natracare | Organic & Natural Feminine Hygiene. 2016. Our Story – Natracare. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.natracare.com/our-story/. [Accessed 03 November 2016].

[8] Natracare | Organic & Natural Feminine Hygiene. 2016. Plastic Free – Natracare. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.natracare.com/why-natracare/plastic-free/. [Accessed 03 November 2016].

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17 thoughts on “The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products

  1. This is a very interesting blog post and something people definitely do not think a lot about. I agree with the point that the idea that women’s sanitary products should be disposable is something that is taken for granted. I didn’t even know that reusable sanitary products existed. I can definitely imagine that it would be hard to garner much commercial support for reusable products vs. disposable ones, but reusable diapers could be an interesting case study. While equally as unpleasant of a concept, reusable diapers have achieved much more success in becoming “main stream.” Maybe the advocates of reusable sanitary products could take note and copy their best practices.

  2. An excellent post to get the conversation started! I think the difficulty with finding sustainable sanitary product solutions is linked to the fact that people have a hard time talking about menstruation at all. There is another start up company called Thinx that sells reusable “period proof underwear.” They had a huge social media push last year coupled with advertisements all over the NYC subway system. I am not sure they have had as much success as the sustainable diaper movement as user OEM noted, but I think that’s likely because everyone is comfortable talking about babies and diapers, but not women and tampons! I actually mentioned the concept to both my mom and sister and they couldn’t get over the hurdle of thinking it was “gross.” I wonder if a celebrity endorsement (such as Jessica Alba with Honest Company re:diapers), might normalize the concept and move the conversation forward a bit more.

  3. Fascinating post – I did not know the emissions impact menstrual product waste has. I think the largest hurdle here is making it easy, inexpensive, and “clean.” An above comment mentioned Thinx, a period-proof underwear startup. However, you need to rinse out the underwear by hand after using to make sure all of the blood comes out before you put it in the machine with the rest of your laundry. That is a hurdle many women in developed countries don’t want to overcome. In fact, developing countries widely use reusable (and sometimes dirty and unsafe) feminine hygiene products – often washable cloths or rags. As income and education increase, women start to use disposable products. In marketing, we’ve learned the easiest customers to capture are those without decided preferences. Therefore it could be critical to reach potential new customers there with more sustainable products such as diva cups before they get hooked on tampons.

  4. What an important and interesting topic. I completely agree with your point that stigma around menstruation prevents us from having conversations that affect 50% of the global population and all of us from an environmental perspective. Not only does this stigma you mention lead to less-informed consumers (I for one did not know that the applicators and adhesive strips were the main contributors to sanitary products’ footprint) but it also prevents current technologies and scientific advances from being applied to this problem.

    I agree with your conclusion that an open dialogue will help women “make a switch” from sanitary products that are environmentally harmful to ones that are more environmentally friendly, like Natracare, but would go further to say that the topic of stigma prevents many women from using any commercially developed sanitary products at all. As such, I think that companies like Natracare should think strategically about education and empowerment campaigns as well as partnering with relief organizations that might be many women’s first introduction to sanitary products.

  5. Such a great topic for this assignment, thank you for choosing it! I really appreciated that you addressed how much stigma plays a role in companies lack of innovation in feminine products.

    I had never even heard of Natracare, and I’m definitely going to look them up and see where I can buy their products. I think about how wasteful tampons are at least once a month ;). A few of the comments above touch on the need for a stronger marketing campaign, and I completely agree. Natracare should reinvigorate their marketing campaign, especially since sustainable and feminist issues are very popular in our culture right now.

    One of my favorite innovations in feminine care is Thinx. They make comfortable, cute underwear that has a built-in absorption mechanism. They claim that the Thinx underwear don’t feel like diapers and really work. I love this solution, because it addresses both issues you mention — the need for innovation and open dialogue. Plus, Thinx has awesome, feminist, boundary-testing marketing. Check them out!

  6. Like some of the above commentators, I had no idea that feminine products created this much waste. Thank you for addressing it and bringing this issue to light!

    One of the things not mentioned is whether fully sustainable products can reach the same level of quality, comfort and ease of use that plastic versions have attained. One of the reasons some women avoid the biodegradable versions of tampons for example, is the awkward and bulky cardboard applicator which frequently does not work properly. So on this front, it seems like before any sort of broader marketing campaign can be run, the product itself needs to be improved. While I am not very familiar with reusable products, I again would like to ask whether they are superior in design and stand a chance in truly competing in the current market. Because with these reusable products think they will not only have to face competition from traditional plastic ones but will also require a lot of consumer education to explain why they are just as sanitary and easy to use and their disposable counterparts. This becomes nearly impossible without superior quality.

  7. Thank you for sharing this post – I had not idea about the adverse consequences feminine products have on the environment and I had not even heard about Natracare!

    As I did more research on the company, I saw that The Honest Company also produces organic / sustainable tampons and they have been selling out! (1) This led me to think that there is a demand for the product–the issue here is as you noted one of increasing awareness and opening the dialogue among more women. It would be interesting to see if The Honest Company and Natracare will lead efforts to get other major feminine product producers on board with creating organic / sustainable tampons and pads — it seems to be that the major hurdle for consumers is price point since organic products are more expensive than the traditional and the lack of availability of such products in most drugstores. By shifting the entire industry to creating these products, this will enable NatraCare and The Honest Company to likely have an edge in the market given their first mover advantage — but for the industry and for sustainability, it will be a huge win by getting their competitors to help bring about change for sustainability.

    (1) http://www.teenvogue.com/story/organic-tampons

  8. This is such an interesting and tremendously relevant topic. Feminine hygiene products are one of the few products that can count around 50% of the world’s population as a potential [current or future] market – with that in mind, this feels like such a huge win from a sustainability perspective, assuming someone can figure out how to make it work! While I think companies like Honest Co. or Natracare are incredibly noble and undoubtedly poised for success (relatively speaking) in this day and age, where consumers are becoming more and more conscious, I worry that we’ll never see meaningful, widespread change in this arena unless some of the feminine care giants buy into the movement and transition towards more sustainable inputs for their products. From a pricing perspective, my intuition says that the sustainable products are likely more difficult to produce at a competitive price-point (though it would be interesting to research this further), and as such, are less likely to be adopted by more price conscious consumers. I’m also concerned about reach for companies like Natracare. While certain products (i.e. makeup or fashion) lend themselves to online or speciality store purchases, given the flexibility in their use, products like Tampons have a very specific and time sensitive use case, which makes it less conducive from a product adoption/customer acquisition standpoint, for brands like Natracare to have limited distribution.

    Thanks for the insightful post – I learned a lot and I’m incredibly interested to see the continued evolution in this specific product segment over the next few years.

  9. Shreya – absolutely interesting post. Natracare’s approach is definitely one to be studied and can lead to good savings. I believe that using organic products and using less fossil intensive products (such as eliminating plastic) is important for this product to be sustainable. Natracare is definitely doing its share to reduce the carbon footprint.

    Another way to reduce the carbon footprint is to have reusable toiletry. One company that is doing this is Thinx. They have created a reusable woman’s underwear that serves as a pad. By reusing you can possibly reduce the carbon footprint and the landfill footprint even more.

  10. Shreya – thank you for the fabulous read! And “woot woot!” for menstruation posts! I worked for a Smart Tampon start up this summer called NextGen Jane, and we often discussed the challenge of changing consumer behavior (in this case, getting women to make Self-Quantification part of their monthly routine using the biological material in their tampons.) It is quite the challenge to get women to discuss their menstruation and a separate challenge to discuss sustainability, particularly when our tampon/pad/alternative menstruation tool is a sticky part of our lives. In reflecting on this stickiness issue, I wonder if much of it has to do with information asymmetries. That is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen sustainability information on the tampons I pick up. It would be interesting if Natracare made part of its strategy providing women with clear information on brand-specific carbon footprints. Once these information are disclosed, women may be more willing to make a switch.

  11. Yes – I totally agree what an interesting topic and post! To be honest, I had not even given much thought to the sustainability of feminine products until reading your post, but I completely agree that there is a stigma around discussing it, as well as changing our behavior. As we learned in Marketing, it is very hard to get consumers to change their behavior. Therefore, as you mentioned, it would be difficult to change human behavior from using disposable tampons; however, Natracare provides a good solution. In order to address the issue, we need to overcome the sigma and provide more awareness and education among consumers.

  12. Shreya, thank you for choosing this topic! An amazing read. I never noticed the environmental consequences feminine products have on our environment as well as of Natracare. When 50% of the population have to use feminine products on a monthly basis, its almost crazy to think that we have not discussed feminine products in the category for climate change initiatives.
    I completely agree that we need to open the conversation about this topic since there is a strong stigma to it. Like the many comments written above, I also think that Natracare should re-establish their marketing campaign and first raise awareness about how wasteful we are with feminine products.

  13. Shreya – what a great and interesting post, thank you!
    And yes, I completely agree with you. Social stigma has been and is still playing a detrimental role in development and advancement of a basic necessity of 50% of the world population. With a market size this massive, one would assume that, there wouldn’t be a dearth of options. But somehow in this one particular case the world has let profitability take a back seat.
    Coming to the issue at hand, I too was unaware the carbon footprint left behind in production and disposal of female hygiene products. The need of the hour, it is clear to see, is a more sustainable, low-emission impact option like those being provided by Natracare. Acceptance and initiative by the larger brands like J&J and P&G, who already have ecological sustainability and combat global warming initiatives, and would hence target even these products through those lens would be the medium term goal. And in the long run, for the sake of 50% of the population, eliminate this ridiculous stigma and make it the commonplace thing that it is.

  14. Very interesting post, Shreya. As a consumer, traditional feminine hygiene product options feel particularly and unnecessarily wasteful and material intensive. I agree with your conclusions that Natracare has taken a great step forward in increasing the sustainability of such a widely needed product.

    Beyond sustainability, I would also be interested in evaluating the challenges that will be posed to Natracare’s operations by climate change in the long term future, potentially such as:
    – Increasing raw material costs. It appears that all of their products are made with organic cotton. Due to the climate change-induced increase in droughts, severe weather, and increasing ambient temperatures straining agriculture production and social pressure creating competition for land use between natural habitat and agriculture, cotton is likely to become much more expensive and challenging to produce in the future. As the main input of their products, this would be something for Natracare to plan for.
    – Potential future regulations. Imposed requirements on packaging materials or greenhouse gas emissions may impacting Natracare’s manufacturing, packaging, and delivery processes (particularly costs).

    These topics may be of interest for a future post.

  15. I absolutely love the topic of the post- an often taboo topic and a sector that suffers from complete lack of innovation. I did a little work on the menstrual hygiene sector and one of the alternatives that is really gaining traction is just plain cloth! It is surprising, but people are willing to go back to the basics, especially after an increased incidence of irritation from using plastic sanitary napkins. Cloth is not only the environmentally sustainable option, in the developing world, it is also readily available. Cotton cloth if washed with soap and dried in the sun is makes a perfect sanitary napkin for a large part of the developing world. The West is also really into beautiful resusable cloth pads. I would encourage you to look at Ecofemme: https://ecofemme.org/

  16. Great post! I was not familiar with this brand, but am aware of others that market themselves as sustainable. And not just sustainable for the environment, but for women. Until recently, I never considered the toxins contained in feminine hygiene products. Despite having been around for a few years, none of these products have adopted a mass market strategy. Why do you think that is? Are traditional consumers less likely to trust an unfamiliar brand, or do they equate natural with less effective?

  17. “Over 50% of the world’s population menstruates”… I thought we are talking about female population that are in their ovulation age….?

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