By Lucy Pegg
Most would agree that periods are a bit of a nuisance. Whether you embrace your menstrual cycle or simply hate it, your monthly bleed is probably a bit of a pain in the uterus. But as much as we may resent our periods, it’s arguably the planet that suffers most. All the most commonly used menstrual products are disposable; we bleed into them and then chuck them in the trash. In fact, each tampon user in the US gets through 11,000 in their lifetime and these take decades to degrade in landfill. With 42 million American women using tampons, that’s a hell of a lot of waste. It doesn’t just end up in landfill either, but can often be found in the ocean or rivers; in fact, in 2010, a UK beach clean discovered 23 sanitary pads and nine tampon applicators on average per kilometre of British coastline. As we take care of our reproductive health, it’s clear environmental well being is far from our minds. As the climate crisis reaches tipping point, this is a mistake we simply cannot continue making, especially if we are privileged enough to have choices about how we deal with our periods.
The heartening fact is that there are ways to menstruate and not endanger the planet. Menstrual cups are one of the most common alternatives to traditional pads and tampons. They are flexible silicon or latex cups that are folded and then inserted into the vagina, where they collect menstrual blood. Once full the user simply tips the blood down the toilet and reinserts the cup. At the end of your period there’s a simple sterilization process, but no waste; menstrual cups can last at least ten years so their footprint is extremely minimal and, as a once in a decade purchase, they’re amazingly good value for money too. Similar to menstrual cups are menstrual sponges (yes, made from real sponges from the sea) which are inserted into your vagina, soak up all the blood and can then be removed and cleaned. These can last for up to six months if properly cared for, again reducing the waste produced by your period enormously.
But what if you’re not keen on internal menstrual devices? As sanitary pads can be around 90% plastic, they’re a no go if you want to deal with your period ecologically. You can opt for eco-friendly pads and liners using organic, biodegradable cotton, which are now available from a variety of companies and easily found both online and often in health food shops. These are still disposable, but they provide an easy transition into a more planet friendly period. If you want to go a step further, try using reusable pads, which are usually made from organic cotton and are used exactly as conventional pads are - except you can throw them in the washing machine rather than the bin after use. There are variations in style, with some having removable absorbent liners and others an all-in-one design. Another product is Thinx, reusable period underwear which can absorb up to two tampons worth of blood depending on the style you choose - and users say they feel nothing like a diaper, which you might expect. The company have excellent feminist credentials too; their adverts provoked debate for use of the word ‘period’ (oh so shocking) and imagery supposedly too suggestive of the vulva, whilst in May 2016 they created the first advert for menstrual products to feature a trans man.
For most of us in the West we’ve reached a point where the options for a more environmentally conscious period are available. To have these options is a privilege and with it comes the responsibility to choose to use these products, rather than the polluting pads and tampons that have been marketed to us for decades. We must apply the principles of climate justice – the idea that those countries and populations that have harmed the environment most, must be those taking the lead in healing it - to even these intimate areas of our lives.
In developing countries, the tampons and pads that we take for granted are still a gift. They are often far too expensive or simply not available at all. Many charities and organisations, are either distributing disposable menstrual products or teaching communities to make their own. Yes, this creates waste, but in countries that are suffering the worst effects of a climate crisis largely caused by the West, they have the right to use the products we have enjoyed the luxury of for years. Some may not have the facilities to sanitise a reusable menstrual product to a safe standard, especially if their culture demands they keep their period hidden. Not that this means there is no hope for eco-friendly periods in developing countries. Recently students from the Art Center College of Design in California and Yale Business School have developed Flo, a compact device for washing, drying and storing reusable pads discreetly in communities where young women cannot wash pads openly. Lunapads, who sell reusable sanitary pads in the US, have a Pads4Girls scheme which sends reusable pads or underwear to the global south, funded through the commercial sale of their products. Pads4Girls estimates they have helped 17,000 women so far. There are much smaller schemes too, such as Kilipads, a social enterprise in Tanzania which teaches women to create reusable pads that are then sold, but also handed out in local schools along with information about maintaining good menstrual health.
As we wake up to the urgency of the climate crisis, we must also wake up to the ways our periods impact the planet. We must not be squeamish about confronting the role menstruation plays in polluting the landscape, especially as the widespread use of disposable menstrual products has an identifiable role in the trashing of the earth. For disadvantaged women it remains a choice to use planet friendly products, but for the privileged it’s nothing short of an imperative.
Lucy Pegg is an aspiring journalist, but currently an English Literature student, based in Brighton in the UK. Her writing covers politics, current affairs and culture, with a stridently feminist outlook. Away from the keyboard she enjoys experimental cooking and delving into a good book.