When the big ‘plastic bag ban’ was introduced in Aussie supermarkets a few years ago, there was a bit of grumbling from shoppers about the inconvenience. Getting caught short at the register while your reusable green bags sat forgotten in the car boot — or worse, all the way at home — really stings.
Trips to the shops became far less fraught, however, once we all got into the habit of remembering our green bags. These days, it’s almost second nature.
The payoff was surprisingly swift. Just a few months after Coles and Woolworths axed free single-use plastic bags in mid-2018 the National Retail Association estimated that overall bag consumption had dropped by over 80 per cent.
That translated to a whopping 1.5 billion bags saved from landfill or worse, from our oceans and waterways. It’s an achievement we can call be proud of and a testament to the power of individual actions that amount to collective change.
But there is still more work to be done because pesky single-use plastic, unfortunately, doesn’t always come in the form of bags — it’s often hidden in plain sight.
Take menstrual products, for example. A single pad is made from the same amount of plastic as four carrier bags. Once disposed of in landfill, it will take about 500 to 800 years to break down, if at all.
It’s a similar story for tampons, too, which take more than a lifetime to decompose. It means that the very first tampon, liner and pad ever created are still lingering in a landfill somewhere in the world.
Conservationist and biologist Alice Forrest tells Yahoo Lifestyle about the huge negative impact that disposable menstrual products have on our environment.
“Firstly, many pads and tampons are often made of plastic and are not biodegradable, which means that they can't be broken down in our environment like natural products.
“If we threw a banana peel or cardboard box into the forest or ocean they will eventually be broken down by organisms and natural forces such as wind, rain and sunshine.
“However, a tampon or pad that contains plastic will not just go away.”
While these items might decompose into ‘smaller and smaller pieces’ that are invisible to the naked eye, they may still leave behind harmful or toxic chemical residues, Alice explains.
It might not seem that much of a big deal on a month to month basis because it’s easy to chuck these products straight in the bin and carry on — until it’s viewed in context.
On average, a woman (or, to be more inclusive, person) who has a period will (briefly) use then throw out 11,000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime.
“If we could see all our of period-related waste piled up in front of us from a lifetime of using pads and tampons, it would be pretty alarming to see,” says Alice.
It’s estimated that over 100 billion menstrual disposables end up in landfill annually — if they end up in landfill in the first place.
“I've found pads, tampons and tampon applicators washing up on beaches. While none of us are throwing our used pads into the ocean, these items can still end up there,” says Alice.
The bottom line is that the short lifespan of things like pads and tampons, and the materials and resources it takes to make, package and ship them, makes them pretty environmentally unfriendly.
“In a world with over 7.8 billion people, it's not sustainable to use anything once like this. Particularly if it's made of materials which can last for centuries,” she says.
Alice makes it clear that plastic and single-use products are not inherently evil; when used in a medical setting, for example, they are often essential.
“But when used for personal sanitary products — or takeaway coffees, plastic bottles, shopping bags, straws etc — it’s just bad design, and we have so many better alternatives.”
Switching to sustainable period products such as period underwear, menstrual cups or reusable pads is an opportunity for people to reduce their waste and contribute to a healthier planet for themselves, and for future generations.
Since launching in 2013, Aussie brand Modibodi has saved millions of garbage bags of waste from ending up in landfill with their range of period undies and, more recently, swimwear.
Period undies look and feel like regular briefs however they’re highly absorbent — some styles can hold up to 10 tampon’s worth of blood — as well as leak-proof and, most importantly, washable so they can be used again and again.
Modibodi is encouraging people to ditch disposable products in favour of more eco-friendly options with the ‘My Period is Green’ campaign and the release of a new, limited-edition sage pair.
It’s also a cheeky nod to the backlash the brand received over a recent ad that featured red period blood.
Never miss a thing. Sign up to Yahoo Lifestyle’s daily newsletter.
Or if you have a story idea, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.