As if reorganizing our entire lives wasn’t enough, making the switch to a zero waste lifestyle can also mean having to switch to zero waste period products.
From zero waste online stores to easy zero waste swaps, you know I've got your back—and it is no different here. So cast your worries aside and let’s get into everything you need to know about applying those 5 R’s to your monthly visit from Aunt Flo.
Even if you’re not going for a 100 percent zero waste lifestyle, reevaluating your menstrual hygiene products is definitely something to consider.
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Why choose zero waste period products?
Well, for those of us who are concerned about the cumulative impact humans are having on the planet, it’s quite simple.
Disposable period products contribute significantly to our colossal waste problem. And over the course of a lifetime, a person who menstruates will use an estimated 5 to 15 thousand pads and tampons. Most of them end up in landfills as plastic waste, since conventional menstrual hygiene products are full of plastics and do not degrade in landfills. Before I made the switch to cloth pads, I sent about 72-80 pads to landfill a year.
However, the waste issue is not the only reason to switch to zero waste feminine products.
Zero waste period products also turn out to be a lot safer than the generic, hyper-branded, household names most of us grew up with. And while they also place a taxing burden on our ecological footprints, wallets, and waste management systems, these name brands and similarly made products can also be toxic. That’s because their products are often made of a blend of conventional cotton, plastic, and synthetic fibers.
Take tampons, for example. They are most often made of a blend of conventional cotton, rayon and other synthetic fibers.
If that doesn’t sound concerning, just have a look into rayon and you may find yourself wondering (as I have) just how these products could possibly be on the shelves for their stated purpose.
Let’s have a look together. Rayon is a synthetic material often made of sawdust. It’s also used in clothing and produces a byproduct known as dioxin, which is a carcinogen.
Why anyone would think it safe to put something like that in tampons is truly beyond me. I mean, did we get some sort of immunity from long-term exposure to carcinogens I didn’t hear about?!
What’s worse is that for a long time the largest manufacturers of feminine products were not required to disclose the materials in their period products, so they could sneak in all kinds of ingredients and materials without consumers knowing. It’s frankly a little outrageous.
According to Women’s Voices for the Earth, conventional feminine hygiene products have been found not only to contain carcinogens, but allergens, reproductive toxins, and endocrine disruptors as well.
So it's probably best to steer clear of these products even if you’re not interested in learning about how to have a waste-free period.
If you already have these products in your home as many of us have, finish them and consider alternatives like the ones discussed below.
Zero waste menstrual pads
Zero waste menstrual pads are reusable cloth pads that can be washed and reused. They work just like disposable pads except you can put them in the washing machine and reuse them. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate different styles of underwear and different flows.
Since zero waste menstrual pads are reusable, they help you divert thousands of disposable pads from landfills. They are often made of natural fibers which make for a safer alternative to conventional pads. Many of them can also be chopped up and composted at the end of their life cycle. Just be sure to remove any synthetic layers first.
While they do take some getting used to, I totally recommend giving them a try if they seem like the best zero waste period option for you.
OKO Creations offers the best reusable pads I’ve ever used and I could not recommend them more. I have a combination of different kinds and shapes, and have found that they work super well for me. Made from high-quality materials like hemp and organic cotton, they are also built to last (like all of OKO’s products!).
You will also find a ton of reusable sanitary pad options on Etsy. Just be sure to experiment a bit to find what works best for you. Generally, I recommend testing the waters by introducing cloth pads in with what you currently use, to start. For more helpful tips on that, check out this article on how I switched to cloth pads.
I’d also recommend checking out the Smartliners Organic Reusable Menstrual Pad on EarthHero. Made from certified organic cotton and recycled polyester, they are super absorbent and make for a great eco-friendly alternative to disposable pads.
You may also want to check out some zero waste laundry detergents to keep your stuff clean.
Zero waste menstrual cup
A menstrual cup is a reusable bell-shaped cup made from medical-grade silicone and worn a little bit like a tampon. While it is a little bit more involved than some of the other options here, it is the most cost-effective. When well taken care of, a menstrual cup can last many years. They can also be worn for up to 12 hours.
The downside here is that they cannot be recycled or composted at all. However, they do help divert tons of waste from landfills for many years if well kept, so they definitely deserve a spot on the list.
DivaCup is one of the most popular brands on the market when it comes to zero waste menstrual cups. Their selection is available in a variety of models and sizes, all made of the highest quality healthcare grade silicone. They also ensure that all of their products are free of latex, plastic, PVC, acrylic, acrylate, BPA, phthalates, elastomers, polyethylene, colours and dyes.
Aisle also offers reusable menstrual cups made of 100% high-quality medical-grade silicone. Their cups are available in two sizes.
If you are interested in this option and want to learn about how to clean a zero-waste menstrual cup, instructions are usually provided with your cup. Generally, you want to wash your hands and your cup before insertion and after removal. For that, make sure to stay away from oil-based and fragranced soaps, instead opting for unscented, oil-free gentle cleansers instead. It's also recommended that you sterilize your cup before first use and after each period by boiling it for 5-10 minutes.
Zero waste period underwear
Also known as menstrual underwear or period panties, this zero waste alternative is worn just like regular underwear. With a lining designed to absorb the menstrual flow sewn right in, zero waste period panties make for a very approachable zero waste alternative similar to the zero waste menstrual pad.
They are machine washable, which means they can be reused over and over again. The issue comes at disposal, where they may not be compostable at the end of their life cycle. For that, it’s important to consider the materials with which your chosen period panties are made, to reduce harm to the environment at disposal. Similarly to zero waste menstrual pads, you may be able to separate compostable layers from synthetic ones.
Here are a few of our favorite brands for eco-friendly period panties:
Proudly female-owned, Rosaseven strives to make women look forward to their period by offering an incredible selection of period underwear, all handmade in Vancouver. Using eco-friendly TENCEL, 100% organic cotton and other mindfully selected materials, their underwear offers anti-microbial, anti-odour, and super wicking protection, with options for different flow levels as well.
In an effort to bring period protection without compromise, their selection features several styles of underwear, a bodysuit and even night shorts—all designed with comfort and sustainability in mind.
To reduce their environmental footprint, Rosaseven even recycles all of the scraps generated during production by sending them to a local textile facility. With so much to love, you should definitely check out Rosaseven if zero waste period underwear is what you are looking for.
For more zero waste period panties you can also check out Thinx. They offer a variety of styles with varying levels of absorbency and made with different types of materials. The fabrics used in their products do vary quite a bit, so be sure to consider that carefully.
Knix also offers a wide range of period underwear options that will help you keep quite a few pads and tampons out of landfills too. Materials vary as well here so do keep an eye out for that as you browse their options.
Is there such a thing as zero waste tampons?
Zero waste tampons are actually a thing if you can find the right ones. In fact, there are plenty of certified organic, 100% cotton tampons out there that are also biodegradable and safe to compost. The trick will be finding zero waste tampons not covered in that thin layer of plastic used to protect the tampon (a.k.a. the tampon wrapper).
A 1% For the Planet member, Natracare offers 100% certified organic cotton tampons with or without an applicator. If you opt for the applicator, theirs are compostable and biodegradable, right along with their tampons. Though they do use a plastic wrapper around their tampons, it is made of BPA-free recycled plastic, and they do make sure to use a recycled cardboard box that can be composted. Their tampons also hold several certifications from the Soil Association, the USDA, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and many others.
At Dame, you will find a reusable tampon applicator, along with GOTS certified organic cotton tampons free of any bleaches, plastics, synthetics, toxins, and dyes. Best of all, their tampon wrappers are now 100% compostable and biodegradable—perfect for your zero waste journey. Their products are available in several combinations, including the complete reusable applicator set, or just the applicator on its own. You might also want to check out their reusable pads and reusable pads set, complete with a handy wash bag.
Access to menstrual products
We cannot talk about periods without talking about menstrual equity. Though all of these menstrual hygiene options exist and are widely available, even for the eco-minded among us, many women and girls around the world are still finding themselves without access to any of these essential products at all. Still today, many even facing societal shame and stigma over their period.
The "luxury" tax on products branded for women (also known as the “pink tax”), along with issues of economic inequality and access to resources are partly to blame for this lack of access, leaving period products quite costly for many (particularly for low-income communities, as well as the unhoused).
According to UNICEF, a lack of access to hygienic menstrual products can pose physical health risks, leading to infections and reproductive health issues. A lack of access to menstrual products can also lead to missed economic opportunities like work or job interviews, as well as missed days of school or social events.
If you’d like to help, The Homeless Period recommends donating a box of sanitary products to a food bank or shelter near you. You can also support Days for Girls or Help a Girl Out in their efforts to bring sanitary kits to women and girls around the world.
Final Thoughts on sustainable periods
Periods can be quite difficult to deal with. From the cramps and constant bleeding, to actually having to remain a productive human being through it all, with some even facing public shame. We are practically superheroes out here!
I hope this guide to a zero waste period will make it a little easier to make the transition to a safer, more ethical period, whether you are looking to complete the switch to a zero waste bathroom or simply looking for better period products. Whatever you do, always remember to choose what is within your means and what you can sustain.
And for any other sustainable living essentials check out the Brand Directory, which features only brands I love and trust.