The environmental toll of disposable feminine products

Uninhibited feedback by cisgender women is key

San Francisco resident Eva Holman has found wine glasses, doll heads and even a fruit basket during her almost-daily beach cleanups. But one oddly common item makes her blood boil: plastic tampon applicators. To bring awareness to this taboo trash, Holman and the Women’s Environmental Network are hosting a beach cleanup on Sept. 25.

“It’s like a dirty secret,” Holman told me. “We need to talk more about this.”

The cleanup certainly exposes the environmental impacts of disposable pads and tampons. But it’s only part of a conversation that seems stalled. In San Francisco, and around the world, many cisgender women struggle to access menstrual products and either aren’t aware of or aren’t comfortable with healthy, sustainable options. If we’re going to stop cramping our beaches’ style, fearless females need to continue shedding the secrecy, letting their stories flow and developing solutions.

A public willingness to embrace women’s needs launched the disposable tampon. To help women join the workforce, an entrepreneurial woman launched Tampax in 1934. More companies quickly followed. Eventually, women were talking about their periods on the radio, television and in magazines.

But harmful perfumes, discreet plastic packaging and the conveniently disposable nature of period paraphernalia still cater to women’s desire to hide their monthly reality. The reasons for the secrecy vary greatly, but this columnist can admit to fearing labels like unclean, unqualified or unable to regulate my emotions. I’m not alone.

“I didn’t used to talk about having periods in my professional world,” Anya Deepak of Women’s Environmental Network, a local nonprofit that empowers women working to protect the environment, told me. “I’ve had a change of heart. If Texas legislators are making decisions based on a woman’s last monthly period, then I should be able to talk about it in public.”

Deepak’s decision to be more direct has worked well. Her boss, who’s a woman, bought her three different flavors of ice cream when she was honest about her premenstrual pain and fatigue. She also keeps a labeled box of products in the work bathroom, which has sparked more open conversations with colleagues.

“This is an important and normal biological process for many, the majority of whom are women,” Dr. Mariana Lopez, who researches the environmental impacts of menstrual products, told me. “Why can’t we tailor our work spaces and our environments to better adapt to this need of a large part of the population?”

But simply stocking bathrooms with disposables only recognizes part of the problem — access. Women, and all Earthlings, also need a clean planet. In 2018 alone, 5.8 billion tampons were discarded in the United States. This trend will increase unless sustainable alternatives, such as cups and reusable pads, become easier to use.

“If we really want to be inclusive, why can’t we have tampons in bathrooms and special areas to rinse menstrual cups?” Dr. Lopez asked me.

Women also need information to make decisions that are good for the planet and their body. “Plant-based” disposable applicators, for example, can trick women into believing they’re buying a compostable product. And fragrance chemicals, chlorine beach and residual pesticides in tampons raise health concerns beyond toxic shock syndrome. In fact, pads, feminine wipes and even Thinx absorbent underwear may all pose health problems.

The environmental and health issues associated with certain products can increase the attractiveness of sustainable options if women feel comfortable using them. This is a goal of Erika Gliebe of Replenish Grocers on Columbus and Chestnut in North Beach. The neighborhood’s new low-waste store, which recently opened, offers instructional materials with their cups and reusable pads.

“Menstrual products are one of the bigger leaps of faith in the ‘zero waste’ portfolio in my opinion,” Gliebe told me. “The goal is to get feedback from customers.”

Ultimately, uninhibited feedback by cisgender San Franciscan women is key. It opens the door to more access and accommodation. It sheds light on concerns. It moves the conversation away from disposables. And it aids in the development of solutions that account for equity, health and the environment.

For San Franciscans who want to alleviate the plastic problem immediately, join Holman, the Women’s Environmental Network and others on Sept. 25 at Ocean Beach.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at

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