Monthly menstruation cycles are unfortunately also typically cycles of waste. On average, a person who menstruates throws away 200 kgs of tampons, pads, and applicators in their lifetime. In addition to accumulating in landfills, plastic from tampons and pads that isn’t properly disposed of ends up in the environment, where it can take centuries to biodegrade, and harm animals that consume it.
According to a study by the Global Sustainability Institute, non-organic pads, which contain plastic, can take 500 to 800 years to degrade. Although tampons — which are made of organic materials like cotton — break down in six months, the plastic applicators they often come with have been found in the ocean, on beaches, and inside dead seabirds.
Unfortunately, little peer-reviewed scientific research has been published on the environmental impacts of various menstrual products. But a credible case can be made that reusable options — menstrual cups, reusable pads and leak-proof underwear — reduce the strain on the Earth by reducing plastic waste and the carbon footprint associated with shipping high quantities of disposable products.
While menstrual cups have recently become more popular, they actually debuted in the 1930s. Today, menstrual cups, which range in price from US$20 to $40, are typically made of latex or silicone, and are inserted vaginally to collect menstrual fluid so it can be disposed of later. Popular brands include Divacup, Ruby Cup, and Luna Cup. A 2019 study comparing menstrual cups, disposable pads, and tampons along a range of environmental impacts — including carbon emissions, ecotoxicity and resource depletion — indicated “the impacts of the reusable menstrual cup used for one year were less than 1.5% the environmental impacts of the disposable products and approximately only 10% of the cost.”
As described on their packaging, cups need to be cleaned thoroughly, and their use does need a certain level of education about how to place and adjust them. People don’t instinctively know how to properly place and troubleshoot issues relating to fit. Because cups can be used for up to ten years, they are a long-term investment at an affordable price point compared to the cost of monthly disposable purchases.
Reusable menstrual pads have been in use for centuries, with one of the earliest known references to a menstrual rag dating back to 10th-century Greece. Companies like Wegreeco, Hesta, Teamoy, and BC-based Aisle (formerly Lunapads) make reusable pads that range in price from US$10–20. Modern reusable pads are typically made of a wicking technical cotton and polyester that hold multiple tampons’ worth of fluid. Shaped similarly to disposable pads, they are held in place with snap or velcro fasteners. Unfortunately, no studies comparable to the cup study referenced above have been done yet on the environmental impacts of reusable pads.
Aisle — which also sells cups and leak-proof underwear — thinks about sustainability in a holistic way. A written statement provided by their press contact said, “For a product to be sustainable, it’s not enough that it’s just reusable.” They consider the product’s whole ecosystem — including the social and environmental impact of producing it — through the intense analysis required for certification as a B-Corp.
Leak-proof underwear are made by brands like Dear Kate, Bambody, and Thinx. They contain a gusset made from layers of technical fabric that absorb menstrual fluid. Period panties are less bulky than pads, and can simultaneously make a fashion statement. They range in price from US$10-$32 per pair.
While many brands are at a higher price point than standard multi-pack cotton panties, they can be worn throughout the month, so there is no need to keep menstrual products on hand for “emergencies.” Manufacturers promote leak-proof undies for comfort while sleeping, as a backup for tampons and as a replacement for other menstrual products. Some offer inserts to supplement the absorbency of the base undergarment.
Biodegradable pads, which can be made of a variety of materials, are also an option that is becoming more widely available. For example, Alberta-based start-up Hempact is developing biodegradable menstrual pads using hemp, which is three times more absorbent than cotton and needs less water and no pesticides to grow. Students from the University of Alberta initially conceived the product in 2017 and are expecting to release it in 2021.
While reusable menstrual products offer a sustainable and affordable alternative to single-use ones, they also pose challenges related to accessibility. The need for education and cleaning can make their use challenging among homeless populations, for instance. Past history of sexual trauma can also make cup use psychologically difficult, as Jana Girdauskas, founder of The Period Purse — an organization working on period poverty — explains in a podcast episode about menstrual cups.
Menstrual cup company Ruby Cup has a buy-one-give-one program where a cup is provided to a person who menstruates who doesn’t have access to menstrual products, so they can continue to participate in school. The products are donated in Nepal, Mozambique, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. They pick places where there is infrastructure for adequate cleaning and people on the ground to provide training to ensure safe use of the products.
When mothers don’t know about reusable products, they’re not teaching their teenagers about them.
Even in wealthier countries like Canada, the costs of having a period can be challenging to manage for people on limited income. A 2014 study by Canadian Menstruators — a group fighting to eliminate taxes on menstrual products — estimated that Canadians who menstruate spend roughly C$29 per year on period products, while an analysis by Chatelaine Magazine suggested it’s more like twice that. The costs can be prohibitive for people of limited means who already live in poverty and struggle to cover essentials.
The Period Purse — which provides education, advocacy and outreach related to menstrual equity and reducing stigma — donates sustainable products through two projects. One project provides reusable products to Indigenous communities in rural Ontario who struggle with the cost of menstrual products and want sustainable options.
Another project, Menstruation Nation, educates high school students who menstruate about sustainable products so they can start using them from an early age and avoid disposable products altogether.
“When mothers don’t know about reusable products they’re not teaching their teenagers about it,” says Period Purse founder Girdauskas. “They’re just passing along the brand of pad or tampon that they’re using.”
An individual choice to use reusable menstrual products is a small change. But, over a lifetime — and generations — the reduction in waste adds up.
A version of this article appears in the Summer/Fall 2020 print edition of Asparagus Magazine. Subscribe today!
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