There’s a lot of talk about zero waste period options out there already, but what I think a lot miss is the emphasis on why we should switch to more sustainable options beyond a nebulous “it’s better for the environment!” angle.

Sure the environment is important, but providing access to period products (and better yet, long-lasting, not single-use ones) go far beyond that. Adequate period protection can foster educational opportunities for girls as well as provide very basic health and safety options.

If you’re not here for all that and just want recommendations, click here.

So let’s talk facts about…

your period and accessibility

Ever complained about how expensive a pack of tampons or pads were?

A UK study found that one in 10 of girls have been unable to afford sanitary products. “In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, a UNESCO report found that 1 in 10 girls misses up to as much as 20% of school each year due to their period” (source), being afraid of going without suitable protection. The US and most other countries suffer the same problem for a type of product that’s absolutely non-negotiable for menstruating people to exist comfortably.

But still, if your budget is extremely tight and you have to choose between a $6 box of tampons or extra food… Food is going to win out, no matter how uncomfortable your period may be.

Initiatives from the private sector and the companies themselves to provide access do happen (Green Indy occasionally distributes menstrual cups to the local community), but it’s not enough. As one Time article succinctly notes, “Creative charity and clever hashtags are part of the solution, no doubt. But they must not be a substitute for meaningful domestic policy reform.”

And closely intertwined with accessibility is…

your period and education

For being something plenty of people do monthly, menstruation is a taboo subject across most cultures. (We all know of the typical “women are unclean, gross” narrative. No need to go more into that.)

And while many of us in places without severe menstrual taboos (like women not being allowed to touch food or attend religious ceremonies) might not think of it, education about periods can even be critical to keep young girls in school. Though, scratch that: a UK study showed that a period was the fifth most common reason for missing school. I’m sure US stats would be similar.

Much of this could be mitigated by educational services, both for young girls on how to deal with their periods in appropriate way with the sanitary options they have as well as society as a whole for removing the taboo from menstruation. Classes that teach girls how to make reusable pads and clean them properly can open up a whole new, safe world for them.

Because make no mistake: education is an absolutely critical part of having a period. If addressed incorrectly, it may not just be an embarrassing stain you have to worry about:

“UNICEF, a key supporter of SHEWAB, recently conducted a survey about how Bangladeshi women manage menstruation, and found that at least one third hide their rags in dirty places. One in three girls fail to change their cloths frequently or wash them with soap after use. Only just over half of the women dried their rags outside and in full sun — the conditions required to kill bacteria. Low standards of menstrual hygiene lead to widespread vaginal and urinary infections… To make matters worse, women and girls in poor families tend not to seek medical help, even for serious infections.”

Finally, let’s consider…

the environmental impact of your period

The environmental impact of utilizing single-use period products is probably the simplest, most concrete way to look at the problem. By numbers alone, you generally use about 20 pads or tampons every month. That’s 240 per year or anywhere between 5,000 and 14,000 depending on who you ask throughout a full lifetime of menstruation.

While not the largest environmentally detrimental practice you’re doing, I’m sure, it’s still a number worth talking about. (Especially when combined with the economic implications of those numbers. I know some of us are zero waste on a budget!)

For further investigation beyond your individual use of tampons or pads, I found this article very helpful. Particularly when they mention:

“the largest impact on global warming was caused by the processing of LDPE (low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from the monomer ethylene) used in tampon applicators as well as in the plastic back-strip of a sanitary napkin requiring high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy. A year’s worth of a typical feminine hygiene product leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents.

Think about it: how eco-friendly is the water-intensive cotton used in ‘eco-friendly’ single-use tampons? What about the chemicals leaching into water streams from processing cotton? What about the travel miles attached to each box of tampons? What about the bleaching process conventional tampons go through?

In the background of single-use sanitary options, there’s a lot going on.

The 10-step zero waste beginners guide - Green Indy Blog (period)

So let’s talk zero waste period options…

So while these zero waste period products may have a high initial cost, they pay for themselves over time. It can be painful to shell out $40, but think carefully about the savings you’ll accrue over time when you no longer have to shell out monthly for boxes of tampons or pads.

This is also the point at which I again need to point out that it’s the job of society to open up access to these products for those who could not otherwise afford them. Theoretically, a menstrual cup could be given to someone as a teen that could last through a good decade with a period. A combination of access and education would go a long way in normalizing this practice throughout society.

That being said, on to the options:

menstrual cup

The most hyped reusable period product: the menstrual cup. While it can be a bit intimidating for folks to consider a menstrual cup (particularly if you’re not super comfortable with your body down south), menstrual cups are a great option.

They’re a cup with a small stem (to pull it out) made out of medical-grade silicone. While not everyone may be comfortable with silicone, it’s long-lasting and recyclable – although probably not through your city recycling.

I personally avoided them for a long time just because I didn’t think I had enough of a period to make them worth it. But I recently partnered with Ruby Cup to hand out menstrual cups and got one to try out myself. I actually really liked it! It’s simple to get in and out and I had absolutely no issues with leaking. I’d definitely recommend it as being worth the initial investment (around $30-40, or 2-3 months of tampon use).

Other well-known, FDA-certified medical silicone brands include DivaCup, Eva Cup, and Lena Cup. I was also recently contacted to try out a new brand called Candid Cup which is collapsible and comes with its own BPA-free cup to clean it at the end of use. I haven’t tried it yet, but the design is intriguing.

Tip: avoid unbranded, very cheap cups. Their silicone may not be FDA-approved medical grade. Many people who have taken advantage of those free cup options complain of strong chemical odors – no thanks.

Menstrual cups, though, come in all different shapes and sizes based on age and whether you’ve had a kid or not. So you’ll need to do a minimal amount of research to see what might be best for you. Put a Cup in It is a helpful site to navigate all of your options.

Consider a menstrual cup if:
  • you bleed a lot. One of the big benefits of the menstrual cup is that it can hold more than a typical tampon. Put it in and go about your day with less swaps, particularly if you’re comfortable with a larger size.
  • you aren’t able to get to a bathroom whenever you like. Most people don’t have to worry about this, but when I worked 16 hour shifts with kids often in crisis… I never reliably knew whether I could walk off the floor. This is also important for people who may have to travel far (to school, for example) and may not have adequate facilities to dispose of single-use options.
Avoid a menstrual cup if:
  • you’re grossed out by messing around down there. Hey, no judgement. This is not right for you if you’re not willing to get to know yourself very well and, frankly, get a little messy.
  • you don’t have reliable access to a private toilet. Tell me all you want, “oh, you can totally clean it in a public bathroom” but that’s just not a thing for everyone. While some people carry around a bottle of water to clean it in the stall, I don’t find that to be a particularly practical option. Luckily, most people can find some toilet privacy.
  • you can’t boil it after every period. To sterilize the cup after your period, you need to boil it in water for a few minutes. If you won’t have access to boiling water, there’s a chance for gnarly bacteria to populate on the cup while it waits for its next use.

Zero waste period ideas (that aren't just menstrual cups) - Green Indy Blog

period panties

For the past few years I’ve exclusive used Thinx underwear as my period protection of choice. While many balk at the idea, it’s absolutely nothing like free bleeding and I don’t often remember wearing them unless I’m actively thinking about them. I personally think they’re simple, no-hassle, and they’ve lasted forever.

The secret? Just “a layered combination of special fabrics designed to pull liquid away from the body, and trap it inside the underwear so it doesn’t leak out.” (Read a whole lot more about the science behind period panties here.)

Period panties come in a variety of options and styles, just like regular underwear; but remember, the smaller the underwear, the less absorption they’ll have. Plus, period panties are often available in 100% cotton (aside from a small amount of elastic) so you don’t have to worry about their end-of-life options.

I already mentioned Thinx, but other period panty companies include Dear Kate, Modi Bodi, and Lunapads.

Consider period panties if:
  • you have a light period. I use these with nothing else and they work great. I switch between two pairs and have no problems.
  • you’re not comfortable with insertion. Again, sticking stuff inside of yourself isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or may not be possible for medical reasons). Switch from single use pads to these, which you can just toss in the laundry with your
Avoid period panties if:
  • you have a super heavy period. While I use these as my main form of protection, they’re not ideal for anyone with a substantial period since they’re technically a back-up option.
  • you don’t have access to a dryer or a lot of sun. These things take forever to dry Let’s put it this way: in the sad coldness of Russia (land without dryers), I would not consider using these.

Reusable Pads - Green Indy Blog

reusable pads

Much less irritating than conventional pads and made of natural fabrics, reusable pads are a great alternative. Particularly for younger girls who may be uncomfortable with more invasive options, reusable pads provide protection over and over again plus they allow for personalization options that may make the process less intimidating.

No need to fear leaks: some cloth pads use a removable liner, and others have a waterproof lining. They may feel sightly bulky, akin to larger conventional pads might.

There are too many cloth pad options to list, but the popular reusable pad companies include GladRags and Lunapads. There’s also a ton of small businesses selling cloth pads on Etsy, which you can see here.

Consider reusable pads if:
  • you’re not comfortable with insertion. Again, sticking stuff inside of yourself isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or may not be possible for medical reasons). Switch from single use pads to these, which you can just toss in the laundry with your
  • you have access to a sewing machine and some skills. Nothing too ground-breaking here in terms of construction, so someone could easily DIY them. Here’s a free pattern with fabric choice help that seems solid.
Avoid reusable pads if:
  • you don’t have a lot of money for an initial investment. Reusable pads are a ridiculously expensive initial investment. If you don’t have $50+ at the start, they’ll probably be cost-prohibitive.
  • you don’t have access to a dryer or a lot of sun. These things take forever to dry Let’s put it this way: in the sad coldness of Russia (land without dryers), I would not consider using these.
Sea sponge tampons

This is an uncommon one, but a lot of the far-leaning health folks recommend sea sponge tampons. I’ve heard anecdotally that people have had success with sea sponge tampons, but I personally wouldn’t endorse them.

The concept of sticking something from the sea inside of me weirded me out immediately, but my initial hunch was confirmed by Dr. Jen Gunter – a doctor running a very helpful blog – who said “According to the Food and Drug Administration, twelve ‘menstrual sponges’ were tested at the University of Iowa in the 1980s and they and contained sand, grit, bacteria, and ‘various other materials.’ (source)”

Now I understand twelve isn’t necessarily a statistically significant number, but it does point towards the way of common sense. Most people selling sea sponge tampons have not gone through the appropriate channels to get FDA approval which means you could be getting just about anything. A company that appears #1 in Google searches for ‘sea sponge tampons’ has a letter from the FDA in 2013 which warns it for – among other things – unapproved devices and unapproved drugs.

If you feel comfortable taking the risk and it works for you, go for it. I just think there are better options.

So that’s it! My lengthy treatise about the importance of talking about and properly addressing menstruation! What zero waste period products are you currently using? Are you satisfied? If you aren’t using reusable period products, what’s holding you back?

 


Polly

An online resource here to help you break down the complex issue of zero waste into simple, actionable steps.

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