Are Reusable Sanitary Pads Better for the Environment?
Compared to single use pads, which can contribute up to 150kg to landfill per person in their lifetime, reusables are definitely the greener choice.
But with such a large range available when it comes to fabrics and styles, there is a pretty big variation in how environmentally friendly they actually are. If minimising your environmental impact is your main reason for choosing a reusable pad, having a look at the kinds of materials used in the pads you’re thinking of buying is one of the most effective ways to ensure this.
Some natural fabrics are more efficiently produced than others. Cotton is a surprisingly resource-heavy material, since it takes up to 6 pints of water to produce a single bud. Additionally, cotton that isn’t labelled ‘organic’ will have incurred the use of pesticides during growing stages. Printed and dyed cottons usually also undergo bleaching and dyeing processes, with the resulting wastewater often being left to flow into waterways. ‘Low impact’ cottons do exist, but they will naturally cost more.
Even bamboo fleeces and velours undergo a solvent process which can be damaging for the environment, although bamboo grows much faster than cotton and so requires less resources.
Hemp is an excellent environmental choice for your stash of reusable pads, since it grows quickly and requires less water and pesticides than cotton, but its softness factor doesn’t quite compare to that of cotton and bamboo.
Wool is sometimes used in ‘leakproof’ layers and although it doesn’t quite beat the synthetics on effectiveness, it is a pretty good substitute.
Zorb, Minky and suedecloth are among the most popular synthetic fabrics used in the production of reusable pads. As well as requiring industrial processes for their creation, they can contribute heavily to microfibre contamination in waterways (washing a fleece jacket once can release up to 250,000 tiny microfibres into the wastewater. These make up 85% of the human waste found on shorelines and in waterways and are thought to be contaminating up to 1/3 of the fish we eat). If leakproofing is really important for you, you can still include synthetic fleeces in your stash of reusables, you just might want to consider buying higher quality fleeces such as Windpro which may contribute less to microfibre pollution.
Or, if you find you go through a lot of pads in one cycle and really would prefer something more waterproof to cut down on the washing, you may also just want to ditch the synthetic fleece altogether in favour of PUL (polyurethane laminate, the ultimate leakproof solution, also synthetic). And if an entire layer of PUL seems a bit excessive for you, you might want to look for reusable pads which include only a strip or insert of it, which minimises the carbon footprint of your pad. PUL also doesn’t shed microfibres and so doesn’t contribute to this kind of pollution.
Experimenting with various styles of reusable pad is an underrated way of ensuring that your stash’s overall environmental impact is minimal. Some reusable pads come with a removable top layer or insert. There is usually way of attaching the removable top layer with straps or snaps, or a pocket for the insert (you may wish to use a PUL insert for optional waterproofing). The environmental benefit of using these styles is that part of your overall pad will need washed less often than the rest of it and so will last longer overall and contribute less to the energy requirements of wash day.
This part of the reusables journey is arguably one of the most difficult to cut down on when it comes to environmental impact - consider the energy required to run the washing machine and the daily water change for those of us who use the soaking-in-a-bucket approach. However, there are some simple ways to ensure impact is minimal when it comes time to wash your reusable pads.
Using that bucket water again to feed plants and trees is a great place to start! The nutrients it contains are beneficial for them. And if you don’t have any plants or trees to water, you can still reduce the amount of water needed for soaking by taking your pads into the shower with you and stomping on them to loosen up stains.
When it comes to the machine, tossing some other items in with your pads and running a full load is usually more efficient than running a small one. Many users also prefer to leave out the chemical detergents altogether when it comes to their reusable pads but if your pads allow for use of detergents, you may want to switch to a greywater-friendly brand, or go completely natural and use soapnuts. These will also help to soften any hemp items you may have.
Finally, hanging your reusable pads to dry in the sunshine is a powerful way to remove stains and eliminates the need for a load in the tumble drier.
With a little time spent researching the materials that go into the reusable pads you buy, and one or two alterations to your washing routine, you can ensure that your stash causes the absolute minimum environmental impact over its lifetime.