Green is the new red: sustainable menstruation

In recent years, more and more attention has been paid to sustainable menstruation, for healthier and greener menstruation. For example, in the Netherlands you have a #menstrual transmission and around the world #plasticfreeperiod is popular.

There are calls all over the world to think about how women*, businesses and politics can make menstruation more environmentally friendly. And this is an urgent need, because it is estimated that women* throw away 45 billion hygiene products every year. Paula Craigten, founder of the online menstruation magazine a period! In her book Beautiful Red Not Ugly she explains how much this actually is:

“If you put 45 billion sanitary napkins in a row, you can extend a line nine million kilometers long. The distance to the moon is 384,400 kilometers. This is almost 12 times up and down to the moon.”

This huge amount leaves behind about 590,000 tons of menstrual waste. This has enormous negative consequences for the environment.

Contaminant: disposable menstrual products


Not only is the mountain of waste harmful to the environment, but the entire process from production to disposal of menstrual products is harmful to the climate. Starting with cotton. Sanitary pads, panty liners, and tampons are made largely of cotton. Very gentle for women*, as it feels velvety soft, breathes and is super absorbent, but less environmentally friendly.

Cotton is the most widespread non-food crop on Earth, devouring an enormous amount of water and is very sensitive to pests and diseases. So sensitive that cotton cultivation uses 25% of the world’s annual pesticides. These pesticides then end up in the food chain and in very small amounts in the final product. The best option is organic cotton, but it is hardly grown. The share of organic cotton is only 3%.

CO2 انبعاثات emissions

The production and transportation of tampons, inner liners, and sanitary towels also contributes to global warming. This process from production to disposal causes a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that the upstream and downstream phases of single-use hygiene products in the European Union emit about 245,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. By comparison, 245,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions are equivalent to flying 637,000 times from Amsterdam to Rome on an economy class flight.


Most disposable menstrual products contain plastic. Sanitary pads are the record holder, because this product is made of 90% plastic. Tampons contain less plastic but can still be found in the package, and applicator, thread, and some tampons have a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part of the tampons.

Such large amounts of plastic are burdening the environment because this substance never goes away. It gets smaller and smaller until only the delicate plastic remains. This concerns plastics smaller than 5 mm. This sounds small, but if women* throw away 45 billion hygiene products each year, it contributes significantly to the mountain of plastic waste. This, in turn, is detrimental to our nature, our biodiversity and our health.

fast forward

Additionally, women* often use menstrual products to flush the toilet. This is, for example, because there is no wastebasket in the toilet. Cleaning ensures that products end up in the oceans via sewage. The plastic in these products is very harmful to seawater and the animals that live in it. In fact, disposable menstrual products and wet wipes are often found on beaches and the sea. In addition to being harmful to the beach and the sea, cleaning hygiene products also cause about 70% of sewage blockages worldwide (if there is a sewage system at all).

An example is Clogged sewage system IJburg in the municipality of Amsterdam. The reason was the large number of menstrual products flushed down the toilet. The municipality also called for the disposal of only three items: urine, faeces and (toilet) paper. Preventing sewer blockages through increased use of reusable menstrual products, for example, saves a lot of money. The costs of maintaining and opening the sewage system in the European Union are estimated at between 500 and 1000 million euros per year. Part of these funds can be used, for example, to combat the anemia of the menstrual cycle.

Therefore, the plastic in menstrual products cannot be completely recycled. And this isn’t the only bump in the road in the recycling process. It is a difficult and expensive process, because the products consist of different materials and organic materials found after using, for example, sanitary pads.

Disposal of the mountain of plastic waste

To reduce the mountain of waste and counteract all the other negative consequences, it is important that we start menstruation sustainably. This can be done, for example, by switching to environmentally friendly options, such as reusable menstrual products. Women Participating for a Shared Future Together with Partners for a Healthy Environment, they conclude in the report Toxin-Free Periods:

“If only 20% of users would choose a menstrual cup for single use instead of menstrual products, the amount of waste in the 28 EU countries could be reduced by about 100,000 tons per year.”

For example, you can think of a file menstrual cup. And you wouldn’t say that but the menstrual cup is old but golden. The first patents date back to 1867. And in 1937, the cup appeared on the market in the form that we used in the twenty-first centuryste century is still known. The cup is reusable and lasts up to 5 to 10 years. This saves a lot of waste.

Another eco-friendly option is this Washable sanitary napkin. The name says it all, sanitary towels that are reusable because you can wash them. The nice thing is that they are available in all shapes and sizes and with the most colorful prints.

It is becoming more and more popular Menstrual underwear. These are panties with a built in type of sanitary napkin. The inner layer of the panties is covered with cotton so that the panties are comfortable and you do not feel like a nappy. They are available in all shapes such as shorts, hip slips or a thong.

Huru International – Sustainable Menstruation

There are also organizations that are committed to providing girls and women* who don’t have access to period products with these products. For example, Huru. The birthplace of this organization is Mukuru kwa Njenga, a slum in eastern Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. This is an organization that has been active since 2008 and fights for a world where a girl does not stop her period. Huru International’s mission is to provide the most vulnerable girls and young women* in Africa with reusable, plastic-free sanitary pads and education about sexual and reproductive health.

They ensure that girls* can move around more freely and, for example, no longer have to miss school, because they have their periods and they don’t have period products. In addition, reusable sanitary pads are a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. Especially in areas like Mukuru, where there is no waste management system, the use of reusable sanitary towels is an absolute must. A slum like Mokoro doesn’t wait for mountains of trash or clogged latrines and sewage. Moreover, burning sanitary pads is harmful to health and the environment.

However, reusable menstrual products are not an option for everyone. Sometimes there is a lack of knowledge, access, money or sanitation. For example, the organization ZanaAfrica chose disposable hygiene products, because the girls themselves chose it. They don’t know how to wash, dry and store reusable sanitary pads. And sometimes it is not because of a lack of knowledge, but simply that there are not enough sanitary facilities in places to wash sanitary pads.


Disposable menstrual products remain a major environmental problem. It is therefore important that reusable hygiene products be promoted in countries where there is knowledge, access, money or sanitation. It will also help make these products more accessible to people who cannot afford them.

In addition, companies that produce and sell non-recyclable products must become more sustainable. This is necessary, because often enough women * take responsibility for the climate, children, family, etc. Women* already have problems with their menstrual cycle, such as stigma and taboo. Concern about our environmental footprint during menstruation should not be added to that.

Read more:

Including the use of language
The word woman * (and girl *) in this article refers to people with wombs.

Anouk van Helst, MA student of history today, trainee groups

The Atria Library and Archives in the heart of Amsterdam houses one of the largest collections on women*, gender and diversity worldwide. The In the news section responds to current topics and developments from relevant documents and publications within the group.

Photo: Pink tampon applicator on a layer of shells, Photographer: Benny Mazur, via Wikipedia Commons

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