An aerial view of a forest illustrating sustainable products

How sustainable are our period products, really?

5 min read

We’ve all heard the horror stories of yoghurt pots from the 1960s washing up on beaches, or piles of nappies taking hundreds of years to break down. On the other hand, doesn’t everything disintegrate in the end? Isn’t everything biodegradable to a degree? It’s a confusing subject and one we’ve had to educate ourselves on thoroughly as we created the tampliner and, later, our full range of period products.
Over the past few years we’ve made decisions about everything from the cotton we use in our products to the boxes we post them in. For each element, we wanted to make a conscious decision, which meant being properly clued-up on all the alternatives and what they mean for the world. Here’s what we’ve learned – some of it might surprise you.

Our packaging

Many of the wrapped products you buy at the supermarket these days will have an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) logo on the box. FSC-approved paper or card essentially means that the wood used to make the paper is grown and cut down responsibly, with the aim of maintaining rather than depleting supply in the long term. So far so good, and a no-brainer when it came to choosing the cardboard for our boxes. But what about after the contents of the package are used up? Sadly lots of the prettiest FSC packaging has a laminate coating added, meaning not only that it can’t be recycled, but that it now takes something like five years to biodegrade rather than the five months uncoated paper takes. Our box, however, has no laminate coating and is fully recyclable.

The bundles our products are wrapped in are compostable. The colourful wrappers around each individual product are recyclable.

A quick note about symbols, while we’re here: in the course researching sustainable packaging we discovered to our surprise that the common Green Dot symbol (two green arrows wrapped around each other like a yin yang) that you probably take to mean ‘recyclable’ actually doesn’t mean that at all. It simply denotes that the manufacturer has financially contributed in some way to the recycling process. We know, right? Read on to see a breakdown of our individual products and how they score.

Callaly foliage

Our tampliners

The 100% organic cotton we use in our tampliners is completely biodegradable. There are three components in tampliners that aren’t biodegradable, and they account for less than 5% of the product as a whole. First, we add a safety veil to the tampon to make sure it doesn’t shed inside your vagina. We also back the mini-liner with a thin bio-film that keeps it waterproof and protects you from leaks.

Third, our tampon and mini-liner are joined together by a virtual applicator that holds everything in place, keeps your finger clean on insertion, and neatly wraps the tampon as you remove it. We chose to make this part of our tampliners from a breathable membrane, the same stuff that’s used by the medical profession in things like catheters and other internal medical devices. The reason for this is that it’s compatible with your body and blood – it won’t cause any irritation or infection, it’s comfortable and it’s breathable. However it is made of a polymer, which means it doesn’t break down as quickly as cotton.

The virtual applicator is incredibly thin – just a quarter of the width of a human hair. Testing for precise biodegradability levels is complicated (see below). However, it’s clear that our super-thin virtual applicator should take less time to break down than the bulky plastic applicators we see washed up on the world’s beaches. According to Euromonitor 69.4% of tampon users in the UK use applicators, and our study showed that 70% of tampon users are adding separate boxes of liners to the equation too. If we manage to replace even a small percentage of those products with tampliners and our multi-product boxes, we will have made a positive impact on cardboard and plastic waste.

Our tampons

The tampons we sell are made with 100% organic cotton and are therefore completely biodegradable. All period products including tampons should be disposed of in the bin and never flushed down the toilet – read our article on fatbergs if you’re not convinced.

Our pads and liners

The day and night pads we sell are made with 100% organic cotton, which is biodegradable. However, like all pads and liners, they have a very thin backing to attach them to your underwear and stop any blood leaking through, and some backing paper that prevents the products from sticking to everything they touch. These will take longer to biodegrade than the cotton.

Biodegradability testing

Once we’d decided which materials to choose, we wanted to give our customers some solid data upon which to make decisions. Just exactly how biodegradable are our products compared with the other options? You might think this would be a simple question to answer, but it’s actually not that straightforward. There are a series of tests that a manufacturer like us can have done on their products under lab conditions to come up with a precise figure in years and months. The downfalls are that these tests aren’t widely recognised, the results aren’t easy for the average consumer to understand, and they’re prohibitively expensive to perform. At the moment we’ve decided the potential data we’d get from testing isn’t helpful enough for potential customers to make it worth the outlay, but hopefully this will change as the industry develops.

In the meantime we’ve broken down (hahaharr) where our products stand in broad terms compared with the alternatives, to help you make a decision.

Compared with reusable products, such as cups. There’s no doubt that reusable period products trump the alternatives when it comes to waste (although of course even cups and period pants do use resources to produce). If you find that cups, pants and other reusable products work well for you, this is the most environmentally sustainable choice you can make. We are always pleased to see new reusable options on the market because it means more choice for people with periods. While we are interested in innovation across the whole femcare industry, our current focus at Callaly is on making better disposable products – a sector we believe has been woefully lacking in innovation until very recently.

Compared with non-organic tampons and pads. Non-organic tampons are often made with rayon, a type of plastic fibre that is less biodegradable than cotton. Non-organic cotton products may take a similar time to degrade as organic ones, but are produced using chemical bleach, pesticides and dioxins, which can have a harmful impact on the natural environment. Non-organic pads and liners often use contain large amounts of plastic and fragrances that are not necessary – or desirable – in period products. If you usually use non-applicator tampons and pads/liners that aren’t organic, switching to a 100% organic cotton alternative is likely to be more environmentally sustainable and potentially kinder to your body.

Compared with plastic applicator tampons. If you’re used to tampons with disposable hard plastic applicators, it’s a no-brainer that switching to non-applicator tampons or tampliners (with applicators that are a quarter of the width of a human hair) creates much less plastic waste.

The future

Reusable products are getting closer to zero impact, but they don’t work for every body or every lifestyle – and sales figures reflect that we still live in a disposable culture. Our aim is to make sure our products have as little impact on the environment as possible. And because we’re a certified B‑Corp, we have to prove that our company is a force for good, that we’re not consciously harming the environment, and that our supply chains are transparent. So you can rest assured that even if that holy grail of a zero-impact disposable product doesn’t exist at the moment, we’re working towards it all the time.

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Currents is a place where interested people with periods come to get the real lowdown on menstruation and bodies. We explain the things nobody else does, normalising every experience of periods no matter how weird it might feel. We’ll leave you informed, unashamed and ready to expect more for yourself.

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