Reusable period pads and sustainability | ActionAid UK

Reusable period pads and sustainability

Access to sanitary products is essential for anyone who menstruates. But around the world, millions of women and girls can’t afford to buy or don’t have access to the safe sanitary products that they need to manage their periods without shame or stigma. 

Use of conventional sanitary products is also harming the environment. Most sanitary pads contain up to 90% plastic,1 while tampons have plastic applicators and sometimes come in individual plastic wrappers. The production of plastic and improper disposal of these products is causing increased pollution and filling up landfills.

This is why ActionAid trains women and girls in key skills to make their own re-usable sanitary pads so they can have access to sustainable sanitary protection and good menstrual hygiene at their fingertips. 

Find out how we are supporting women and girls around the world with a life-changing skill and helping to protect the environment at the same time.

How do girls and women benefit from regular and reusable sanitary protection?

Better health 

In many countries around the world, women and girls are often forced to use whatever they can to manage their periods, including rags, newspapers and even tree leaves2. For women and girls who are able to access some sanitary towels, many have no choice but to re-use the same, used one for many days. In both instances women and girls put their health at a serious risk. 

Better education and ability to work

Lack of access to sanitary protection has both short and long-term repercussions for girls and women. 

Period poverty including the stigma that usually surrounds menstruation stops women and girls from going to school or work, leading them to miss out on their education or vital income to support themselves or contribute to their communities.

In the long run, a lack of education can have several devastating impacts on a girl’s life including the possibility of child marriage, early pregnancy and vulnerability to violence and abuse. 

Lower cost

Disposable sanitary pads are expensive. A pack of sanitary pads can cost more than a whole day’s pay in Malawi. Since most women and girls need at least two pads per period, this means spending two days’ pay every month on sanitary pads alone.3

Why are conventional sanitary products bad for the environment?

Mass-produced sanitary products are disposable items that contain plastic and other non-biodegradable materials that are harmful to the environment.

Pads are made of 90% plastic while tampons have at least 6% plastic1. This large-scale plastic production releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases which cause air pollution and global warming.

In addition, improper disposal of sanitary products such as wrapping them in plastic bags also fills up landfills and takes years to biodegrade. Some sanitray products are also flushed down the toilet which could mean that disposable pads and tampons can end up in our seas and washed up onour beaches. This has detrimental effects for humans, the wildlife and our habitats such as our land and oceans. 

This year World Environment Day was on 5th June. This year’s World Environment Day theme is #BeatAirPollution. It was also World Oceans Day on 8th June 2019. Find out how ActionAid is helping to keep our air safe and our oceans clean.

Training women to make re-usable and sustainable sanitary pads

To combat these issues, ActionAid trains women and girls to make safe, reusable sanitary pads so they always have access to clean sanitary products, help protect the environment and also create a small income for themselves and their families by selling their extra products at the market. 

We provide women and girls with sewing machines and instruct them in how to use them to make washable, cloth sanitary pads. Find out how we are helping women access better menstrual health and a sustainable source of income.


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Reusable sanitary pads and education

School girls in Malawi often have to wear a thick, unabsorbent cloth called Nyanda which chafes their skin, stains their clothes, and is noticeable due to its bulk.

This makes the young girls vulnerable to bullying and creates shame and stigma around the natural process of menstuation. Due to the discomfort and the teasing, some girls end up skipping several days of school. 

For example, one in 10 girls in Africa miss school because they don’t have access to sanitary products, or because there aren’t safe, private toilets to use at school.5

As part of an ActionAid pilot project in Malawi schools, students now receive reusable sanitary pads and can practise safe menstrual hygiene.

Find out how reusable sanitary pads are transforming the lives of girls like Aida. 

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Menstrual cups and other sustainable options

ActionAid is working closely with women and girls to help them access a range of products that help them manage their periods with dignity while also providing sustainable solutions. 

We have set up a pilot project in Malawi that distributes menstrual cups to women and girls who cannot afford sanitary products. 

Menstrual cups are made of silicone and last 10 years, leaving very little waste. They are also easy to use and safe as they can be sterilised using boiling water.

Our work increases girls’ choice and access to sanitary products, and we put their voices front-and-centre when determining which products are most useful for their communities.

However, we know these solutions don’t work for everyone. Through our discussions with the women and girls we work with, we found that menstrual cups are not understood or not considered culturally appropriate in some of the predominantly rural communities we work with.

Menstrual cups need to be inserted into the body and are regarded with suspicion for this reason. It is also possible that this solution could lead to cultural stigma, stress and further complications, for example if a girl or woman has been subject to FGM.

Watch a BBC short film by Gloria Achieng about ActionAid’s menstrual cup project in Malawi.

Exploring all options for a sustainable solution 

Even though ActionAid is piloting projects to assess sustainable options that help women make reusable pads or support girls in using menstrual cups, we realise and appreciate that these options are not suitable for all the women and girls we work with.

For example, in conflict zones and during humanitarian crises where there is an immediate need and where there are no safe toilet facilities for women and girls, we understand that reusable sanitary products and menstrual cups are not an effective option

So, while we explore several sustainable options as an alternative to the store-bought sanitary pad, we still need your help to support the thousands of women and girls in places like Jordan, Greece, East Africa and Bangladesh with our sanitary kits.


Page updated 10 June 2019