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The environmental & economic costs of single-use menstrual products, baby nappies & wet wipes

10 Dec 2019

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In recent years, there has been growing interest and debate about the impacts coming from the current production, consumption, and disposal of single-use products, especially plastics.

Single-use menstrual products, baby nappies and wet wipes are examples of items that become waste after using them only once, and are mostly made of plastic. Due to their contribution in weight to the municipal solid waste stream and due to their environmental, economic and social impacts, these items require special attention. This is a pioneer study which aims to analyse the impacts of single-use menstrual products, baby nappies and wet wipes as well as measures to prevent or minimise them. This report is the first of its kind at the European level, and goes beyond the limits to single-use items
analysing the benefits of reusable products across a range of factors.

Overall Consumption Rates and Waste Generation

Single-use menstrual products, baby nappies and wet wipes still dominate the market, compared to reusable products, and their production in Europe has progressively increased in recent years. In the 28 EU Member States, by 2017 (reference year), statistics have shown that:

  • more than 49 billion units of menstrual products were consumed, meaning an annual generation of about 590,000 tonnes of waste,
  • around 33 billion single-use baby nappies were consumed, resulting in 6,731,000 tonnes of waste per year, and
  • around 68 billion individual wet wipes were consumed, which equates to 511,000 tonnes of waste per year.

Reusable products and benefits

This study also identifies the main reusable alternatives to single-use menstrual products, baby nappies, and wet wipes, and analyses the consumption trends and current accessibility and availability of these products in Europe. Waste prevention: Among the environmental advantages of reusable products (compared to single-use ones), waste prevention is one of the biggest factors. For example, it has been

THE ENVIRONMENTAL & ECONOMIC COSTS OF SINGLE-USE MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS, BABY NAPPIES & WET WIPES estimated that the use of a menstrual cup results in a reduction of 99% of the waste that would be generated using single-use products. Therefore, if only 20% of menstruators would opt for the menstrual cup instead of single-use menstrual items, the amount of waste could be reduced by nearly 100,000 tonnes per year in EU-28. Similarly, a family that chooses reusable baby nappies can also save about 99% of the waste that would be generated by using single-use ones. If only 20% of babies using nappies switched to reusables, the amount of waste that could be prevented in the EU-28 would be more than 1 million tonnes each year.

Economic savings

The waste reduction potential can be translated into really high economic savings for the municipality, due to lower management and treatment, as well as a reduction in the costs coming from removing waste from beaches and seas, as litter and sewage related debris would be reduced.
Reusable products also offer direct savings for consumers: Using a menstrual cup instead of tampons or pads, would result in annual savings of €18 to €119 per person while lifetime savings could exceed €4,400. Similarly, the use of reusable nappies results in savings between €200 to €2,000 per family compared to singleuse ones. The saving increases if you take into account the fact that reusable baby nappies can be used by different siblings or bought second-hand.

Tackling menstrual poverty

Where statistics are available, nearly one in five women struggle to pay for basic single-use menstrual products on a monthly basis in the EU, 78 what can have a significant impact on the quality of a menstruator life. Considering the potential economic savings that reusable menstrual products can bring, making them widely available and accessible across the EU will help reduce menstrual poverty.

Report by ReZero, Zero Waste Europe, ReLoop and Break Free From Plastic. The report details the environmental and economic impacts of single-use menstrual products, baby nappies, and wet wipes across the EU-28. Check out the full report below.