Could washable nappies lead the way for reusable period products?

28 May 2024

With Menstrual Hygiene Day taking place on 28 May, we asked ourselves the question: how can we encourage a more sustainable approach to menstrual health?

Senior consultant Sally Scholefield suggests that our learnings from running the Real Nappy Project in Gloucestershire offer tangible clues around how we can encourage a transition towards reusable period products and drastically reduce the mountains of waste being generated each year from the use of disposable items…

For more than fifteen years the focus of the Real Nappy Project has been to promote the cost savings and environmental benefits of using washable nappies, with the aim of significantly reducing the quantity of disposable nappies being incinerated in the county.

Although the project’s financial incentive scheme has undoubtedly helped to increase uptake in users, in a recent user survey only 55% of users mentioned ‘cost savings’ as a main motivator for choosing washable nappies.

More importantly, 92% said a main motivator is ‘environmental’, with reusable cloth nappies being the first step on a path towards sustainable living. A staggering 63% told us that using washable nappies made them think about other ways in which they could reduce waste or live a greener lifestyle, saying that reusable nappies ‘made them consider other options and/or make other changes’.

From nappies to… period products?

A natural step along the road of reusable hygiene might be to start encouraging use of reusable period pads or pants among those who have previously switched to using cloth nappies with their children.

At an estimated 150 uses per pad, it will be a long while before a reusable period pad ends up in a landfill site. Crucially, it means not having to buy them every month, year and decade until menopause arrives.

In terms of pure numbers this could result in savings of about 10,000 to 15,000 pads per woman! With every disposable sanitary pad containing plastic (and many containing chemicals with potential health risks) the benefits that come from switching are immense.

Overcoming the ‘yuk’ factor

One problem is that discussing reusable period products is a sensitive subject that few are comfortable opening up about, even among friends. As one mother put it: “Before trying reusable nappies I was a bit grossed out by the idea of reusing sanitary pads and I was embarrassed at the idea of people possibly seeing them on the washing line”.

In the same way that those unaware of modern reusable nappies may still picture the terry-towelling approach of days gone by, are those reticent to embrace reusable menstrual products imagining embarrassing leaks and tatty cloths that need soaking and boiling after each use? It is more than likely they are unaware that some of the latest reusable pads are made from high performing fabrics with a waterproof layer made from recycled plastic bottles.

Even more importantly, not only is laundering small pads quicker and cheaper than washing and drying a nappy, but fewer materials are used in production of the pads.

Would this conversation be easier if you were already talking with friends about reusable nappies? With so many types, brands, colours, and patterns available for both products, there is plenty of scope for discussing the merits on design alone, and that is before you factor in the environmental benefits.

The perfect ‘early adopters’?

Our ‘real nappy’ allies really are the perfect group to adopt more sustainable period products: they are already open to the concept of a bit of additional washing, have overcome the perceived ‘yuk’ factor around reusable items and fully understand the cost savings to be made.

Is it simply a question of raising awareness, giving out free samples and explaining the cost saving, environmental (and possibly health) benefits? That encompasses everything that a reusable nappy project – like the one in Gloucestershire – is already well placed to achieve.

What should anyone considering the switch to reusable sanitary pads bear in mind? As with first time washable nappy users, the best advice is not to feel you have to go all in with them to begin with; instead try using at home and/or just try in the daytime. Just buying one pad and reusing it can save up to 150 disposable ones being used and thrown away.

NB: Pads have been discussed here as they have the most correlation to reusable nappies; however, it is worth mentioning that there are many other types of reusable period products out there – from cups and sponges to period pants.

What is the Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project?

The Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project has been run by Resource Futures for the County Council since 2008 and will continue until at least 2026. You can find out more about the scheme and its work here.