Are Re-usable Menstrual Products a Realistic Alternative?

Katharine Blacklaws, Eunomia Research & Consulting

20 Jun 2018 -



The ‘Blue Planet Effect’ following David Attenborough’s celebrated documentary series has led to a wide-ranging and popular ‘War on Plastic’. Popular pressure is leading organisations across the UK to reduce or eliminate single use plastics such as straws and coffee cups. However, attitudes to the 4.3 billion disposable sanitary products (sanpro) that are used in the UK every year are slower to change. Perhaps people don’t realise that a conventional sanitary pad contains approximately the same amount of plastic as four carrier bags.


The feminine hygiene industry has if anything become more resource intensive in recent years. Until recently, tampon applicators and wrappers were made of card and paper; now they’re plastic.


A great deal of this sanpro ends up in the wrong place. In the UK it is estimated that 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet every day. The Marine Conservation Society, through its annual beach litter monitoring, notes that the ‘sewage related debris’ (flushed plastics) makes up approximately 8.5% of UK beach litter; a figure that has been rising each year.


One solution is to encourage the use of re-usable menstrual products (or ‘RUMPs’). These include:

·      Menstrual cups and discs;

·      Reusable cloth towels; and

·      Period panties.


RUMPs last 5-10 years, so whatever a woman opts for she will substantially reduce waste. The economics are also compelling; on average, a woman uses around 11,000 disposable sanpro items during her lifetime at a cost of around £1,800. Using RUMPs instead can cost as little as 6% of this figure.


Cost matters: period poverty affects people all over the world and even in the West it can lead to girls missing significant amounts of school. To address this, the Governments of Scotland and Wales are looking to legislate to provide free sanpro to those who need it. It is not yet clear whether RUMPs will be offered, but doing so would make these socially important schemes cheaper while achieving environmental benefits. 


It would be naïve to assume that a widespread transition to RUMPs will happen overnight. That’s why it is important to change the habits of people who flush disposable sanpro. City to Sea has identified that the number one reason why people flush is that they aren’t aware that it causes a problem. Currently, not all schools are required to educate students about periods but the UK Government plans to use powers under the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to require PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) be taught in all schools by 2019. There will be flexibility over how subjects are delivered, which presents a fantastic opportunity to educate girls about managing their periods and the correct disposal of sanpro.


Changing attitudes is difficult when the disposable feminine hygiene industry spends £14 million on advertising in the UK alone. This is a loud voice, insisting that menstrual products are by definition disposable items. However, sanpro as we know it has only been around since the 1930s and should not be considered the final chapter in menstrual protection technology.


Encouragingly, and largely thanks to the open platform of the internet, millennials are leading the way on changing menstrual care habits. If you’ve never used RUMPs and want to know more about the pros and cons, online vlogs and community forums offer a wealth of accessible information.


Progress is happening, but more remains to be done. In an increasingly plastic conscious world, women everywhere need to take on the responsibility of ensuring that menstrual products are not left out of the discussion.


 About the author:

My name is Katharine (Kat) Blacklaws. I graduated Leeds University in 2012 with an MSc in Sustainability and I have worked at Eunomia Research & Consulting for just over 2.5 years. I wrote this piece because I passionately believe that increasing awareness of reusable menstrual products will mean more women will voluntarily embrace them, and all the advantages they offer, which in turn will lead to a huge reduction in the quantity of plastic waste generated.



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