Should you use reusable menstrual products, nappies and wet wipes?

49 billion menstrual products, generating 590,000 tonnes of waste. 

33 billion nappies, generating 6,731,000 tonnes of waste. 

68 billion wet wipes, generating 511,000 tonnes of waste. 

This is the staggering number of single-use products consumed in the EU-28 in a single year (2017). It’s also one of many statistics highlighted in a landmark report released last week on the environmental and economic impact of single use menstrual products, baby nappies and wet wipes.  

The report “THE ENVIRONMENTAL & ECONOMIC COSTS OF Investigating the impact of these single-use items across Europe was published by Break Free From Plastic and written by ReZero with support from Zero Waste Europe, Break Free From Plastic, ReLoop, and contribution from Women’s Environment Network, Hej Support, City to Sea, Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine and WECF International

Environmental and economical impact of disposable sanitary items

Headed by Rezero, a foundation for waste prevention and responsible consumption, the report focuses on three areas: consumption rates and waste generation, environmental and economic impact as well as reusable products and their benefits.  With reusable alternatives now available, albeit not as commonly accessible, single-use menstrual products, nappies and wipes are continuing to win the lion’s share of the market. This report hopes to highlight these alternatives and make a social and environmental case for choosing them.  

Their negative environmental impact is felt throughout the entire life cycle of the product. Production, transport, waste generation, treatment and disposal after use all contribute to harmful emissions generation. Over 1,500 liters of crude oil are needed to produce enough single-use nappies for a newborn baby until they are toilet trained. Meanwhile, the annual consumption of menstrual products in the EU-28 is equal to 245,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents. 

What happens after we dispose of them? 

Of all the single-use plastic products found on the beaches and seas of Europe, menstrual products and nappies are in the top 10 and account for 3% of the total Municipal Solid Waste in the EU28. It’s estimated that 87.4% of these products end up in the landfill with 12.6% heading for incineration 

Often, due to package mis-labelling or lack of customer awareness, many menstrual products, nappies and wipes end up wrongly flushed down the toilet. This brings additional, sewage-related issues including the blocking of pipes, clogging of pumps and subsequent inability for equipment to work properly. The maintenance required to unblock equipment is believed to cost the EU between 500- 1,000 million per year. Incorrect or inadequate disposal can also lead to contamination of marine environments and microplastic infiltration in the water system. 

There have been some attempts to recycle single-use nappies but it’s an uphill battle due to their varied composition and mix with organic material, which is not only complex but very costly and challenging to scale. 

What’s the alternative? 

Reusable and toxic-free alternatives exist for menstrual products, nappies and wet wipes. The advantages include environmental, health and economic benefits. To help change consumer behavior, these products must move from being exclusively available through online shops to local supermarkets and pharmacies.  

The menstrual cup, one of the most popular reusable alternatives to single-use menstrual products, has an expected lifespan of five years. This equates to a savings of 26.1kg CO2 equivalent every five years (versus tampon use), a 99% waste reduction and a cost savings between €749- 4,493 over the lifetime of the menstruator. Reusable alternatives also help to fight menstrual poverty. Nearly one in five women in the EU struggle to afford basic single-use menstrual products, adversely affecting their quality of life. A reusable alternative that is more economically viable (and easily assessible) can help reduce menstrual poverty. 

Switching to reusable nappies is also environmentally and economically beneficial. The carbon footprint of a nappy can be reduced by 40%, equivalent to around 200kg of CO2 equivalents by swapping to reusables for one child up until they are toilet trained. A family can also prevent 99% of the waste associated with single-use nappies and see an economic savings between 200- 4,000. 

Read the full report here