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Pads and Tampons: The Cornucopia of Plastic.

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Jakarta - A woman, on average, uses 20 pads or tampons per month which means a total of 240 a year. When multiplied with a woman’s menstruating years of approximately 40 years, this leaves a grand total of 9,600 used products during one woman’s lifetime. There are 3.5 billion women in the whole world, which results in an incredible amount of waste [1].


A close up of a clean pad with adhesive wings and flowers on top of it
A fresh new pad ready to use

Source: Polina Zimmerman [10]

Disposable pads are rectangle shaped products made of absorbent materials, which often come with adhesive flaps (known as wings) that stick to the outside of the underwear to help keep the pad in place and prevent leaks or stains [2,3]. It is recommended that pads are changed after 6-8 hours to avoid bacterial infections, but perhaps more frequently during moderate to heavy flow days [4].

One of the biggest pros of pads is a little to no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) since there is no need to insert anything inside the vagina [2]. Toxic Shock Syndrome is a rare but life-threatening condition, caused by bacteria entering the body and releasing harmful toxins, which must be treated immediately [5].

Additionally, they are easy to wear, especially for young women who just recently started their periods. Pads come in various sizes which can accommodate a woman’s flow and activities [2].

However, a major con is its environmental factor since disposable pads result in a large amount of waste. Adding to that, pads can sometimes still shift out of place or wrinkle up if not put on correctly, which can result in leaks or stains. With pads, women would not be able to swim when using them and are visible when using certain types of clothes [2].

Common Brands: Charms, Laurier, Kotex


Thirteen new, fresh clean tampons with flowers
The average amount of tampons used by one woman in a month

Source: Polina Zimmerman [11]

Tampons are cylindrical shaped cotton that is inserted into a woman’s vagina when menstruating. It has a string attached to the end to help pull it out, and some types even come with an applicator to help with the insertion process [3]. They soak up period blood and have to be changed within 4 to 8 hours [6].

The pro of using a tampon is their size, since it is small enough to bring around making it convenient and discreet. If the tampon is inserted properly, there would not be any discomfort; in fact, some women say they do not even feel them. Perhaps, the biggest advantage is women can use tampons when they go for a swim without having the fear of leakage or it falling off [2].

Similar to pads, one of the cons of using a tampon is the environmental impact. Tampon users also have a small risk of contracting TSS which are often associated with tampons that are super-absorbent. Other than that, insertion can be uncomfortable and at times cause irritation or dryness in the vagina since it also absorbs other vaginal fluids [2,6].

Common Brands: Natracare, OB, Tampax


Why are single-use menstrual products unsustainable?

Plastic is used in all aspects of modern life and menstruation is no different. The products’ packaging is already half of the problem but this is just the tip of the iceberg. When looking into the products’ design, the amount of waste tossed becomes more prominent.

The comfort of pads and tampons come with a price. First, extracting the cotton needed to make pads and tampons requires an immense amount of water [1]. To top it all off, the end products are wrapped in plastics that are made from low-density polyethylene made from oil.

An unopened pad with its wrapper on an Elle girl magazine with a sleeping mask
Single-use menstrual products are more harmful than you think

Source: Polina Zimmerman [12]

Specifically for pads, the design makes use of thin flexible, leak-proof thermoplastics as the base, which is then combined with the adhesive feature allows the pad to be attached to the underwear. The wings that help anchor the pad in place are made of thin polyester fibres to help wick blood away into the absorbent area of the pad [7,8].

Pads not only contain harmful chemicals for women and the environment, but they also contain the same amount of plastics as four plastic bags [7]!

Tampons are no different: the absorbent part incorporates small fragments of plastic, which is a thin layer that holds the cotton part together; the string is made of thermoplastics; applicators are also plastic moulded into smooth, thin, flexible rounded shapes, which are not only bad for the environment, but can also scratch vaginal lining, possibly leading to infection, bacterial growth and TSS [7,8].

While they are highly convenient, these plastics are long-lasting and when they break down, chemicals would seep into the ground [1]. The lack of non-biodegradable materials and environmental hazards of a singular pad, it can take 500 to 800 years to decompose [9]. In fact, in several instances, some women also tend to flush these products down the toilet after use, which can easily end up in the ocean when the sewer system fails [8].


It’s clear that pads and tampons contain a large amount of plastics and chemicals, which are costly for the women who use them and also for the environment. With plastic pollution persisting to be a threat for the environment, it’s necessary to make changes and fortunately, there’s been an increasing level of awareness of other “greener” alternatives, such as reusable pads and menstrual cups.


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