More and more employers are providing menstrual products to their female employees. In fact, starting from December 15, workplaces under federal regulation will be required to make tampons and sanitary pads available in their restrooms. However, a quarter of participants in public consultations on the subject have pointed out the significant environmental impact of these disposable products. Should we be concerned?
Mila Zielinski, Partnerships Manager at the Quebec Network for Women's Health Action (RQASF), is pleased with the upcoming change in the Canadian Labour Code. "It sends the signal that there is equality between menstrual products, toilet paper, and hand soap. They are essential because menstrual precarity is a scourge," she expresses.
Many people cannot afford to purchase an adequate number of these products. Reusable options, such as period underwear or menstrual cups, are increasingly promoted. Scientific articles also conclude that the menstrual cup is the most environmentally friendly option. However, it may not be suitable for all situations.
"We don't always know when we will be menstruating. It can happen at the workplace or at school, forcing affected individuals to take time off," points out Kate Bouchard, Research and Planning Officer at the Institute of Health and Society (ISS) at UQAM.
Nevertheless, traditional tampons and pads raise concerns about their potential effects on women's health and the environment. The ISS, in collaboration with organizations such as the RQASF, published a report this summer that reviewed the literature on this topic.
The report highlights that "menstruating individuals will use approximately 12,000 to 15,000 non-reusable products in their lifetime, representing 110 to 135 kg of waste per person (Borowski, 2011)." Additionally, "menstrual pads are composed of 90% plastic [...], and their decomposition can take 500 to 800 years" (Arena et al., 2016).
"Employers are encouraged to use fragrance-free or environmentally friendly products," wrote Employment and Social Development Canada in an email to Le Devoir.
This context is conducive to the emergence of products that aim to be healthier and more environmentally friendly. Three months after launching her business, Alea Protection, Roxane Champagne-Duval has already conquered 400 bathrooms in around forty employers, including the Business Development Bank of Canada, Intelcom, and Les Sacs Lambert.
"We offer them the option to support a local business, better for the well-being of employees, with more sustainable products for the planet. It ticks all the boxes," says the businesswoman.
Roxane Champagne-Duval explains that the core of her tampons, made exclusively of GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic cotton, is free of pesticides, dyes, chemicals, fragrances, and plastic.
"When was the last time you looked at the ingredient list of a tampon or menstrual pad? The first ingredient is often rayon (also called viscose), which is made from chemically treated wood to have a cotton-like appearance," she points out to emphasize the difference.
The Alea Protection applicator is made of cardboard, and the packaging is paper. Its menstrual pads are made of organic cotton, corn-based bioplastic, and removable silicone paper. She ensures that the pads are biodegradable in 90 days.
"We agree that it's not 100% environmental because, in the end, we throw them away," admits the entrepreneur who is considering developing products based on hemp, which would use less water to produce than cotton.
Similar brands with similar models and claims are popping up all over the world, including Iris + Arlo in Quebec.
Are these products truly better for the environment? For now, there simply aren't enough studies to confirm or refute that. Indeed, many factors come into play to determine and compare the environmental footprints of different models, from their production to their end of life.
Unable to eliminate the use of disposable menstrual products, there should still be a move towards modifying them to make them less harmful, believes Erica Lebrun, founder of the Quebec-based company Mme L'Ovary, which mainly sells menstrual panties and also advocates for public subsidies for the purchase of reusable menstrual products.
We probably haven't reached the end of possible innovations in this field.