Women are being misled by ‘plant-based plastic’ tampon applicators made from polyethylene
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Published: 22 October 2019
This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod
A report published yesterday (21 October) shows that women across the world are being misled by greenwashing claims made by the menstrual product industry. Research published by Greenpeace Laboratories has found that tampon applicators sold as ‘plant-based plastic’ are in fact polyethylene – which is the same material that plastic bottles, toothbrushes and normal oil-based tampon applicators are made from.
Tampon applicators sold by eight brands were tested. Five were marketed as ordinary (oil-based) plastic and three were marketed as ‘plant-based’ plastic. All eight applicators were polyethylene at the end result.
What is ‘plant-based’?
This greenwashing comes as no surprise – big, profit-driven businesses are learning to exploit consumers’ growing eco-consciousness to compete in a changing market.
Green-minded consumers see the words ‘plant-based’ and think that they are choosing an eco-friendly alternative to oil-based plastic. ‘Plant-based’ suggests that these applicators are biodegradable, compostable and therefore guilt-free.
However, if a plastic is labelled ‘plant-based’, it isn’t necessarily a compostable or biodegradable plastic. It just means that some of its ingredients have come from plants – for example, sugar cane. As little as 20% of the total ingredients can come from plants for a plastic to be labelled as ‘plant-based’.
Plastic in organic tampons
Five of the eight brands selling tampons with plastic applicators were organic. While tampons made from organic cotton are certainly better for the environment, in terms of the reduction of pesticide use and improved soil health, organic standards are designed to uphold the organic principles of health, ecology, fairness and care. The sale of environmentally polluting plastic applicators for use with organic tampons is in contrary to these principles.
Outside of the organic industry, ordinary plastic tampon applicators have been sold with non-organic tampons since 1973, and continue to contribute to large-scale plastic pollution. On average, women use 11,000 menstrual products in a lifetime. Each plastic applicator sold with a tampon is thrown away after only a few seconds of functional use.
‘Whether they were made from oil or from plant-based feedstock, the tampon applicators we tested were still the same old plastic. Polyethylene made from plant-derived carbon is still polyethylene, meaning that the applicators in the organic-labelled products we analysed will likely persist in the natural environment in exactly the same way as ‘conventional’ plastic applicators. The fact that consumers are being sold these products as a positive environmental choice is misleading and must be addressed.’
DR DAVID SANTILLO
Greenpeace Research Laboratories
Research conducted by the Women’s Environmental Network showed that there were nine plastic applicators for every kilometre of beach in the UK. In fact, menstrual products are the fifth most common item containing plastic that you’ll find on European coastlines.
It’s worth noting that compostable and biodegradable plastics do exist, and they do decompose in the right environments – such as in industrial or home composting systems. But in order for this technology to be useful, it needs to be clearly defined, labelled and understood.
The first organic, plastic-free tampon
Susie Hewson is the founder of Natracare. She developed the world’s first ever organic, plastic-free tampon in 1989, in response to a lack of healthy options for women. Natracare’s period products were introduced to the market at a time when period products were composed largely of synthetic materials.
When asked about this greenwashing, Susie said: ‘It’s such a shame that during a time when we need to band together to make changes that help the environment, cynical, profit-driven businesses are exploiting people’s will to do the right thing.’
Since 2017, Natracare has been working alongside the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to close the loophole which allows for environmentally damaging single-use plastics to be certified along with organic tampons. GOTS is currently reviewing the standard. Natracare has pledged to remain vigilant until the standard is changed.