Photograph by Hannah Whitaker, National Geographic
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Tampon applicators are almost always made from plastic. Some companies make applicator-free tampons.

EnvironmentThe Story of Plastic

How tampons and pads became so unsustainable

A combination of technology and social pressure drove us toward sanitary products shot through with plastic. Is there a better solution?

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This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Plastic pervades modern life, and menstruation is no exception. Since the middle of the 20th century, many tampons and menstrual pads have contained somewhere between a little and a lot of plastic in their basic design—sometimes for reasons that “improve” the design, but often for reasons less crucial.

Getting a handle on how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products is tough, in part because it’s labeled as medical waste and does not need to be tracked, and in part because so little research has even looked at the scope of the problem. But rough estimates for the likely output are staggering: In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste.

To dislodge plastic from menstrual care, though, will take more than design disruption, because the reasons plastic has lodged itself so deep...

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