Zero Waste Menstrual Swaps & Why Sustainability Is So Important Right Now.
This is just a *TW* that I am going to be very open and honest with my information, terminology and my own personal experiences. If reading about menstruation and anatomy is difficult for you then perhaps this article isn't a good fit, but I hope you read it anyway because going zero waste on menstrual products is a very important contribution menstruators can make to cut down pollution and plastic waste on a global scale.
Your one decision could help change the world. I will also be using terminology that is inclusive of all menstruating individuals.
The world is changing rapidly at the moment. People are taking stock and making changes in a lot of different aspects of their lives, and one of those aspects which I have seen being spoken about quite a lot online is sustainability. How to grow your own food, reuse old items for new purposes, fix stuff at home by yourself, make and mend your own clothes, make your own bread and long-lasting supplies. To that end with so many people at home right now, the chances of getting one's period and being caught totally off guard are very high, and a lot of people don't really know all that much about the sustainable solutions for that exact situation, or the concepts just seem so foreign they just get dismissed out of hand.
This is exactly the predicament I found myself in last week. If I had still been using conventional pads and tampons I would have had a bit of a situation on my hands. Dusty and I live in quite a rural area, relatively far removed from the nearest stores. Making a trip to the store just for sanitary products would have not only put us at unnecessary risk of infection but also would have been a waste of petrol (and we are being very cautious with our finances right now.)
Luckily I have been using my reusable pads and moon cups for months now, and I really counted my blessings, when hit by an unexpected period, that all I had to do was grab a reusable pad, my hot water bottle, and a cup of tea and settle in for a day of pain and backache.
So what's the problem with pads and tampons?
Let me begin by giving you some statistics and general health info, because some of you may have been using disposable menstrual products your whole lives, without being aware of, or considering, the knock-on effect of their use on our environment. A lot of the time we find it hard enough just dealing with the physical and mental effects of menstruation, that when it comes to our product choices it's a case of out of sight, out of mind.
According to online pad and tampon calculators, the average menstruating individual will use between 6 000 and 16 000 tampons in their lifetime, and should they start menstruation at the age of 12 and use 20 pads a cycle, around 11 000 pads in their menstrual lifetime as well.
Realistically this will vary because each person is different, and while some experience heavy flow for 3 days, others experience light flow for 7. It also makes a difference to your waste load if you use plastic applicators or not, or if you mainly use panty-liners over large night pads.
On average the total waste load per person is between 250-300 pounds (113 - 136 kgs) per person. Now multiply that by the +- 3,5 billion menstruators globally and you will see why we have a real problem on our hands.
Plastic Pollution and Landfills
The problem with your average sanitary pad is that they are made utilising 90% plastic-based materials, and can take anywhere between 500 - 800 years to decompose. Currently, every pad you have ever used in your life is still in existence and will be long after you are gone.
The same goes for every plastic tampon wrapper or tampon applicator, as they are uncommonly recycled, given that they are considered medical waste and would need to be taken to a special facility for incineration.
When thrown away sanitary products can either go to a landfill (where they will slowly break apart into micro-plastics, seeping into groundwater, polluting the soil, or being ingested by wildlife) or to an incineration plant (where the fumes will go directly into our air, polluting it with harmful chemicals.)
Tampons will often be flushed and find their way into sewers where they can cause blockages, these sewer blockages also have to be cleared manually which means your tampon becomes a health risk for someone else too. Alternatively, they end up on beaches and in the ocean, where they may be ingested by unsuspecting wildlife. In fact, Ocean Conservancy volunteers collected 27,938 used tampons and applicators on our world’s beaches on a single day (International Coastal Cleanup, 2013)
The process of making these products also pollutes the air and water surrounding the manufacturing facilities with harmful fumes, manufacturing chemicals, and harsh bleaching chemicals.
Harmful To Our Bodies
The environment aside, what the exposure to these harmful chemicals can do to your body is nothing to overlook either. A big part of the problem with disposable products is that no-one really knows the full story when it comes to their manufacturing process and the chemicals used in creating them.
Toxins can be readily absorbed through the lining of the vagina, and when tested, 5 out of 10 tampons contained traces of harmful chemicals, dioxins and insecticides which would have been used on the cotton plant whilst still growing.
These include Glyphosate (which is a well-known component in the infamous pesticide and weed killer - RoundUp), Rayon (which is an abrasive fibre commonly found in disposable products like pads and tampons, which can cause tiny scratches when inserting and removing the tampons increasing your risk of infection), Polyethylene, as well as the harsh bleaching chemical Chlorine Dioxide (which creates polluting, harmful and bio-accumulative byproducts like dioxin, which not only end up in the environment but also remain in our bodies for decades.)
Most of these chemicals are found in pads as well, and even though they aren't going inside your body, they still make contact for hours, and since they are made from synthetic materials they prevent airflow which can lead to yeast infections and UTI's. And you may have thought you could escape plastic by using tampons, but many tampons are actually covered in a thin layer of polypropylene to keep the tightly packed fibres of the cotton together, which then break down and are absorbed into your system.
What are the alternatives?
Let's start with cramps. A lot of people don't know this but switching to menstrual cups can alleviate a lot of cramping and pain. During your period a tampon will absorb 65% menstrual blood, and 35% vaginal moisture. The absorption of the bodies natural fluids can actually increase cramping and your risk of infection.
Menstrual cups are made from medical-grade silicone and as such are latex-free, hypoallergenic and contain no dyes, perfumes, BPA, phthalates, plastic, bleaches or toxins. They can hold 3x the amount of liquid of a tampon, which means you can leave it in for longer, and because it doesn't have the same harsh chemicals and abrasive materials, you run far less risk of developing an infection.
Also because they don't absorb any of your natural moisture, you can use them on light days, and just in general, without damaging the delicate lining of your vagina. They can also still be worn comfortably with an IUD.
Menstrual cups are so easy to sterilise, all you have to do is leave them to soak in boiling water after use, and then store when thoroughly dried. As a bit of a germ-a-phobe, I also rinse mine in water first and wash it with soap before placing in boiling water just to be sure. If you do that ensure the soap is rinsed off properly as soaps can interrupt the delicate PH balance of the vagina.
As they are non-absorbent, they aren't susceptible to bacterial growth unless left damp, in a dark space for long periods of time. Like anything in life, a good level of sanitation is important. A lot of people re-use one on the same day just by emptying the cup, rinsing it, and re-inserting it, and that is perfectly fine. One wouldn't do that for more than one day in a row, purely for hygiene reasons. It also goes without saying that hand-washing is incredibly important.
Menstrual cups are simply great to have around. I personally bought three just in case, and it's such a relief to never be caught out without enough products and need to rush to the shops in a panic. It also means you don't have to buy and carry around different types of products for different days (beginning and end of period), different times of day, or different flow strength.
Menstrual cups are a once-off purchase that suit all days, flows and times of the day. A menstrual cup is comfortable to sleep with as well if you are the kind of person who wears a tampon at night. I'm not, however on days when I have run out of clean reusable pads I have slept with a menstrual cup in and almost forgot it was there the next morning because it was so comfortable.
Personally, I bought three because I love to go to outdoor music festivals, which means sometimes not having access to anything but a port-a-loo, and no-one wants to try to sanitize their menstrual cup in one of those. My process has been to swap them out, rinse the used cup using water from my water bottle and put it in a container or "wet bag" (this is a waterproof bag that won't allow any leakage) to sterilise in camp with some boiling water at a later stage. Mine also came with a collapsable silicone cup with a lid for the purpose of on-the-go sterilization. They can be ordered alongside the menstrual cup or some stores sell them as a combined package.
And because they are so comfortable to wear, to the point you almost forget you are wearing one, I never feel like my festival experience is being hindered by the untimely arrival of my period. They are also amazing for hikers, backpackers and travellers of all kinds because they barely take up any space and are perfect for absolutely any situation, like being in a foreign country and not knowing how to ask for menstrual products, or being on a week-long hike and not wanting to waste precious space in your backpack with different types of products or used products you can't dispose of.
I can't even begin to describe how comfortable menstrual cups are in comparison to tampons. When they are in place you can genuinely forget they are there. Initially, the feeling is a bit foreign, and I suggest reading the "Users Manual" thoroughly to learn how to place and remove the cup.
There are also groups on Facebook that help first-time users with all their menstrual cup related questions, such as issues in insertion and removal. Some people have been scared away by the idea that they are hard to remove or could get stuck, but in all honesty, the best piece of advice I have read on one of these groups was to breathe, relax, and bear down (push muscles down like one would during birth) when removing the cup. It's not as scary or technical as it sounds, it's just an added muscular movement that really helps, especially for first-time users.
I might also add that I have never had children but I still managed the muscle movement with ease. I read about this issue before ever trying to use a cup and the first time I removed it I followed that advice and had absolutely no issues whatsoever. In comparison to the pain of inserting a tampon, and also the slightly nauseous, almost poisoned feeling I would always get when using them after a few days, the menstrual cup is the best thing that ever happened to me.
As an important side note, I will add however that my experience hasn't been without its adjustment period and the shape of the cup makes a big difference, or at least it did to me. A longer, more oval-shaped cup with a ball at the end is better in my opinion for ease of insertion and removal. Having had my shorter cup with a thin silicone tail actually get stuck, and going through a bit of a harrowing ordeal to remove it, I would say the short round cups would only really be ideal for menstruators with a shallower vagina. At the very least make sure the tab to remove it is solid and easy to grip.
As I mentioned previously, it's a once-off investment that will last you years instead of being a monthly expense. So now you can cross off the financial burden of having to constantly pay for menstrual products, which are being taxed quite heavily in some countries, and just buy one (or a few) menstrual cups, and put it out of your mind until you finally see some wear appearing on the cup. Since they are made from medical grade silicone, you will likely only have to replace your cup maybe once or twice in your menstrual lifetime, and when you do they can be sterilised and sent for recycling.
As I have mentioned above, pads contain 90% plastic materials which mean that chemicals aside, they prevent airflow. This can lead to infections, rashes and UTI's. Cloth pads, especially those made from organic cotton and bamboo are cooler, more breathable, and great for sensitive skin.
As someone who has always had an aversion to tampons and how they made me feel physically when I used them, the only other option I thought, was disposable pads. Reusable pads, especially the bamboo microfibre I found, make such a difference in comfort levels, I almost look forward to my period for the first time in my life. They are so gentle on the skin and still allow the same airflow as normal cotton underwear, which means it is highly unlikely you will suffer from any of the same adverse effects as one might get from disposable pads.
Since most reusable pads are made from organic plant fibres, they are also exposed to far less, if any, harsh chemicals during their manufacturing. Unlike disposable pads they can also be washed before first use, to ensure if there were any chemicals they are washed out before the pad comes in contact with your skin.
*Real talk moment* - If your current disposable products were to fail you, and menstrual blood had ended up on your clothing/undergarments etc, you wouldn't just throw them away, would you? You would do what people have been taught to do from their very first period, and soak them in cold water with a bit of washing powder or bicarb. It's just as simple with reusable pads.
If you dampen each pad, sprinkle a layer of handwashing powder onto the centre before stacking one on top of each other and leaving them to soak for a few hours in a tub or basin of cold water, and then put them in your washing machine on a cold wash... hey presto! Sparkling clean, just-like-new, reusable pads.
After giving mine at least 15 washes by the time of my writing this, I haven't had any issues with stain removal (as long as you only ever use cold water it will be fine, hot water sets stains) and I certainly haven't had any issues with cleanliness. As with the menstrual cup, they have to be completely dry before storage as, just like damp clothes when you put them in a closed cupboard, these will get the exact same damp clothing smell and start to grow mildew if stored damp.
Much like the menstrual cup, it's hard to get caught unawares when you have reusable pads around. If you run out you can just wash the ones you already have, and because they are more absorbent you also need less of them, it's easy to use the same three in rotation to give one a chance to dry properly between uses.
They are great for travelling because you always have a backup to your cup, and they are also lightweight and don't take up much space at all. If you are in a situation where you don't have great access to sanitation they are also a better alternative to using the cup as you don't have to insert and remove anything which minimizes the risk of contamination.
You can buy a host of different sizes and patterns from G-string pantyliner, normal pantyliner, standard-sized pads, night pads and post-partum pads. They also come in the most amazing assortment of colours, patterns, and fabrics. I bought a few just to try out the different fabrics and I must say the grey bamboo microfibre is a winner across the board.
For starters, if you are a big fan of not sounding like you are smuggling a giant bag of chips/crisps in your underwear when you walk, then reusable pads are for you. They are incredibly comfortable, and because they are completely silent, it makes you far more confident to do things you wouldn't normally do when wearing a disposable pad (which one can only compare to wearing an adult diaper as far as how conspicuous they feel in anything other than pajamas.)
They are much less bulky so they don't show up when wearing tight pants, and because they are breathable it makes it easier to wear what you want without the discomfort of that air constricting plastic disposable pad feeling. They are also more absorbent than disposable pads in my experience, which means longer wear and less concern about leakage. As someone who only wears a cup when I go out, and since I work from home that's not often, reusable pads have revolutionized my life. I am happy, comfortable and confident, in ways I have never been until now, throughout my entire period.
They are great for everyone from any financial situation which makes them an especially important item to donate to charities to help impoverished communities, as menstrual cups are often pricey and very much inaccessible to people who are struggling financially, whereas there are quite a lot of people locally making their own reusable pads at a fraction of a cost of a menstrual cup.
A global issue amongst impoverished communities is young learners not being able to go to school because they have started their periods and don't have access to affordable sanitary products. Reusable pads are not only a cost-effective method of contributing to this cause, but it also opens up a potential revenue stream for people to make these products themselves and sell to other members of their community as well as to local stores.
As you can see above the entirety of all the products I have ordered, which could last me at least two menstrual cycles, really doesn't take up very much space at all. All my pads fit in the wet bag but if I were to take them away I could remove a few pads, add a cup and the collapsible cup and be completely prepared in one little bag.
The combination of these two products is the best investment I have made in my journey to zero waste thus far. It not only feels like an investment in a lifestyle I am deeply invested in but also an investment in my overall physical health and mental wellbeing. I no longer dread my period and now embrace it with an utter sense of calm and preparedness. My cramps have definitely been alleviated through the use of the menstrual cup, and my general comfort levels are the highest they have ever been where my period is concerned.
These products are now widely available across the globe, a lot of people have taken to manufacturing reusable pads as a small business, and I would suggest supporting local businesses where you can. Unfortunately, my local reseller of cups was a bit out of my price range so instead, I ended up searching Aliexpress.
I took a long time going through a variety of different stores until I found one that definitely sold medical-grade silicone cups, and while the cups, unfortunately, came in plastic packaging for sanitary reasons, the entire package of pads came wrapped in brown paper with the pads individually wrapped in tissue paper which was a nice zero-waste touch for me.
I will include the links below, not as an affiliate link, but simply for people like me who are finding it difficult to find these kinds of products where they live or are uncertain of the quality they will receive if they try to find them online themselves. Mine are all perfect quality and took two months to ship. During this time of pandemic lockdown, orders may be on hold, but when they start sending packages out again they don't take all that long to arrive.
I hope this has answered any and all questions about these two amazing zero-waste alternatives to conventional menstrual products, but if not please feel free to ask in the comments below.
Lecy Eco Life Pads: Click here
Furuize Menstrual Cups : Click Here