The average woman uses somewhere between 11,000 and 16,000 tampons and 12,000 pads in a lifetime, according to the US-based National Research Center for Women and Families.

That’s equal to 160kg of waste, not including packaging or applicators.

Amid a backlash against plastic, it’s little wonder several eco-friendly feminine hygiene products descended on last week’s Natural & Organic Products Europe trade show in the hope of capitalising on soaring interest.

Meanwhile, three of the big four retailers have stocked organic, biodegradable or reusable sanitary wear within the past 12 months. Such innovations broadly fall into two categories: disposable but biodegradable cotton pads and tampons, or reusable products, such as cups, fabric pads and tampons. It’s a clear sign of the rejection of plastic manifesting itself across all areas of fmcg. So, can these products achieve mainstream acceptance?

Dame, the first reusable tampon applicator, is now available in Waitrose: 

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Increased awareness

“During the past 12 months, 321,000 fewer women aged under 45 bought tampons, liners or towels compared with the year before,” according to Kantar consumer insight director Matthew Maxwell.

“In this age group 72% of women buy these products, down from 77% in 2015. Increased awareness of single-use plastics is a factor in driving this downward trend. In 2018, 44% of people said they were more concerned by single-use plastics and 70% said they were planning to find alternative solutions.”

Meanwhile, 8% of women used a reusable sanitary product in 2018, found Mintel, a figure that rises significantly among women aged 16 to 24.

It might be higher if more women realised that the majority of disposable tampons aren’t made with cotton or compostable materials - 80% don’t, says Claire Lettice, founder and CEO of &Sisters, which produces eco-friendly 100% cotton pads and tampons as well as a menstrual cup. In fact, most tampon brands are made with synthetic fibres, while some pads are made with up to 90% plastic.

With “half the population obliged to buy your products each month whether they want to or not” there’s “not much incentive for the big boys to provide an eco-friendly alternative”, says Lettice.

Granted, P&G unveiled a Tampax-branded menstrual cup in the US at the tail-end of last year, but there’s no sign of it launching here.

Educating consumers

In the UK, the fmcg giant accepts it has a “role to play in reducing plastic waste” and educating consumers on how to better dispose of products.

Indeed, it has agreed to meet with Ella Daish, founder of the grassroots movement to #EndPeriodPlastic, after she threatened a demonstration outside its Surrey head office. But P&G insists a move to biodegradable cotton is not the answer - even if a cotton product would eventually break down in water.

“For feminine hygiene products there is no particular sustainability benefit in making them biodegradable,” a P&G spokeswoman tells The Grocer. “Biodegradation is irrelevant because it does not occur for waste disposed into landfills and incinerators.”

At the very least, Daish is demanding brands offer plastic-free alternatives and that products list their ingredients so women can see what they’re putting inside themselves.

“If these were products we were putting in our mouths, we’d want to know what was in them. Why should it be any different if you’re putting it in your vagina?” asks Celia Pool, co-founder of startup Dame, which has created a “world first” reusable tampon applicator, which launched in Waitrose at the beginning of the year.

Whether the big players are on board or not, the surge towards sustainability is coming fast, says Fiona Smyth, director of reusable pad brand Bloom & Nora.

“While the key driver to switch to reusable nappies is the exorbitant cost, the majority of consumers who want to try washable pads do so for the environment,” she says. “We are reaching the end of the early adopters stage and easing into majority acceptability.”

Morrisons - which has made great fanfare of its record in reducing plastic waste - is ironically the only big four retailer not stocking eco-friendly pads, tampons or cups.

Feminine hygiene has seen little advancement in the past 50 years, but it looks like challenger brands and their moves to ditch plastic will shake up the market. Period.