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A primer on disposable hygiene products

Disposable personal hygiene products are everywhere — and wherever we find them, we can find plastic – and wherever you find plastic, you find pollution. Recent reports from CTV Hamilton show that massive amounts of plastic tampon applicators, among other plastic waste items, are continuously washing up on the shores of Red Hill Creek in Hamilton, Ontario. Whether it is a result of an undetected waste water breach, or the result of illegal dumping, one thing is certain – plastic waste is a fundamental part of this ongoing issue. And this is not unique to this one creek, river beds and shorelines across the country and throughout the world are littered with disposable hygiene products.

How did we let plastic get into all our hygiene products? What impact do these products have on the health of our planet and our non-human co-inhabitants? And beyond that, who is responsible for doing something about it?

Johanna Fraser

What is so deeply troubling about this is from both a socioeconomic and an environmental perspective, is that disposable hygiene products like wet wipes, tampons, and menstrual pads replace reusable items that most of us have in our home already,  or could buy or make quite easily. So, how did we let plastic get into all our hygiene products? What impact do these products have on the health of our planet and our non-human co-inhabitants? And beyond that, who is responsible for doing something about it?

The answers to all three of these questions are both complicated and debatable. So, let’s address them one by one, starting first, with: how did we let plastic get into so many hygiene products?

A Brief History Of Disposable Hygiene Products

The National Geographic published an excellent and eye-opening article about the history of disposable pads and tampons — which investigates the socio-political origins of disposable menstrual products. Societal pressure for women to be discreet and maintain economic efficiency together made for a situation where women were expected not to hide the perceived shame of their uncontrollable bodily excretions, and to continue to be active, functional members of economic society during menstruation. Prior to the public introduction of disposable menstrual pads in 1921, and not much later, tampons, women used reusable products whose bulkiness and comfort often left much to be desired, given that they were generally made by hand out of whatever was available. When they were removed they had to be washed and hung to dry – and this meant they would be seen by the public if hung on a line. Disposable products allowed women the opportunity to become more discreet about their periods – which was good for menstruators at the time who may have otherwise been shamed for their monthly visitor, but in the long run has served to maintain the perception that period blood is dirty or shameful.

Other Disposable Wipes

So, what about wet wipes and disposable facial cleansing cloths, baby wipes, and other disposable cleaning cloths? They were invented in 1958 by a former cosmetics industry employee named Arthur Julius — he trademarked the still popular Wet-Nap. Since their invention, wet wipes have expanded away from hand wiping to all aspects of our hygiene, from intimate care, to facial cleansing, to baby bums, to wiping down dirty countertops. They are now ubiquitous, and you would be hard pressed to find a household that does not use wet wipes, whether for their children, household cleaning, or sanitization.

So, disposable hygiene products are everywhere, and when they are disposed of they end up in sewer systems and landfills, and are sometimes dumped or dropped. However they are disposed of, they very often end up in our waterways, whether due to overflowing sewing systems or by breaking down into ground water.

If allowed into sewers or disposed of in irresponsible ways even these completely compostable wipes can pose significant problems for wildlife, who often mistake garbage for food.

Johanna Fraser

Many disposable wipes break down into microplastic when disposed of in landfills, and more, when flushed down the toilet, create clogs and contribute to overflows and other significant problems in sewage systems the world over. For this reason, some places in Canada have begun to advocate for the banning of labels that claim wipes are flushable – it is never the case that a wipe is flushable, even if it is biodegradable or compostable, given the length of time it takes for fabric or cotton wipes to break down into biomass — standard wipes take up to 100 years to break down, but even biodegradable wipes will take a while; in fact, even the most eco-friendly versions made with only cotton cellulose will take up to a year to break down in a healthy home compost pile.  If allowed into sewers or disposed of in irresponsible ways even these completely compostable wipes can pose significant problems for wildlife, who often mistake garbage for food.

Disposable pads and tampons pose similar problems, and take significantly longer to break down. Further, and unsurprisingly, that disposed of pads and tampons contain human fluids they pose a significant risk to local wildlife who can easily mistake a tampon for a small animal. And the biohazardous risk also exists when it comes to trashed or flushed pads and tampons given the possibility of anyone coming into contact with a pad or tampon being exposed to bloodborne pathogens.

Finding Solutions

So, what should be done about this, and who is responsible for taking action?  Whether the onus for addressing the environmental impact of disposable products should be put on corporations, governments, or individuals, is a perennial debate. Corporations can claim that they are simply fulfilling a need, governments can claim that they are protecting the economy, and individuals can claim that they require convenient and efficient options due to rushed and economically strained lifestyles, and use what is readily and easily available. Each of these claims is simply a negation of responsibility on the part of individuals and groups unwilling to imagine a different world in which our actions as humans does not put non-human animals and the health of our soil and plant life at risk. It is in fact all of our responsibility to act in the interest of the planet and all its inhabitants, and there are a few things that can easily be changed in your daily lives to help reduce the negative impacts of these disposable hygiene products.

The best and easiest option is to as an individual or household, make the choice now to stop using disposable items. Here are three fairly simple places to start:

  1. Baby wipes can be replaced with a set of reusable cotton cloths and warm water.
  2. Menstrual pads or tampons can be replaced with reusable, washable pads, or a menstrual cup. For emergencies, consider purchasing 100% cotton products wrapped in paper, with only cardboard applicators, or better yet, no applicators.
  3. Wipes for household cleaning and disinfecting can be replaced with a soapy cloth (extra points if you use bar soap or solid dish soap!) or in emergencies, paper towel that is then disposed of in your green bin or backyard compost.  If you prefer to use a spray, a diluted vinegar solution can do wonders for cleaning soiled surfaces. Households with children may benefit from looking into small independent companies that produce rolls of reusable towels made of absorbent cloth to replace traditional paper towels.


Reusable menstrual products are often available from small local makers, but some other convenient options to either buy online or from a small independently owned store are:



Aisle (previously Luna Pad)

Diva Cup

Or make them yourself:

Compostable menstrual products are available from Natracare:

Reusable paper towels, facial cleansing cloths, and from Cheeks Ahoy (a small Ontario based company!) are available from retailers across Canada Or make your own:

Johanna Fraser

Johanna Fraser is a proud mom to a hilarious 2 year old, a grateful partner to a hardworking stay-at-home parent, and a friend to a house full of non-human animals. She runs a small handcrafted soap company called Dirty Daisy Soap Co., and whenever she has a spare moment you can find her in her small urban food garden in Hamilton, Ontario. Johanna is also a passionate collector of knowledge and is presently a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at York University. She holds an MA in Political Theory from McMaster University.

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