Forgive this corny segue, but I thought of it and now I can’t resist: Cycles abound in environmentalism. There’s the water cycle, the recycling system, and cycling to work to reduce one’s carbon footprint. There’s a fourth kind of cycle that doesn’t get the press it should, however, and that’s the menstrual cycle.
Mother Jones calculates that the average American woman throws out 250-300 pounds of pads, tampons, wrappers, and applicators in her lifetime. If that sounds like chump change against the backdrop of the 62,415 pounds of garbage she ultimately chucks, consider the fact that there were 157 million American women in 2010. It is now 2013, and we’re not shrinking. The amount of menstrual supplies in our landfills becomes unsettling.
Let me distress you further with something you already know: America’s not the only country on the map. According to the frightening and informative website worldmeter.com, the human race is creeping up on 7,103,000,000 people. While not every woman in the world has access to disposable menstrual products, when you think of the billions of women around the world that do use these products that amounts to – well, a dizzying amount of period-related waste in our planet.
I’m objecting to the “waste” component of period-related waste, not the period component. For too long the world has been telling women they’re nasty for something that happens roughly every 28 days. You would think that after centuries of this phenomenon, no one would be surprised that it still happens and we could all just move on.
As Elizabeth Scharpf and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff noted in the Huffington Post, modern feminine products meant liberation for the women of the 1920s and 1930s. Whether bullet-shaped or flat and thin, absorbent cotton provides phenomenal leak protection in comparison to older models of period maintenance, e.g. loose rags, or thick spongey material that had to be hooked to the undergarments. Thin, adhesive pads and discreet tampons meant the girl and woman of the twentieth century could stay involved in outside life (school, work, sports) when her menses came around. And these cotton wads that many of us take for granted are still out of reach of many women and girls in underdeveloped countries who are forced to stay home from school when they’re on their period.
Pads and tampons, in a way you’ve helped reduce stigma by making the management of periods less of a restrictive production. At the heart of it, though, you are also part and parcel of a business model that does a number on a) our planet b) our bodies and c) our wallets. In the west especially, industries manufacture products to be used once (or for a limited amount of time), then thrown away, necessitating that customers buy again and again. The “dealing-with-periods industry”, for lack of a better term, is one such industry -and let’s be honest, companies who make menstrual products fill their ads with the message that you just need to “deal” with your period by making go away. It has done a phenomenal job of convincing women that the 1920s and 1930s dream material, cotton, is the only way to go. Cotton is of course toxic once blood has been absorbed, necessitating that it be tossed, and requiring women buy several boxes of pads and tampons each year, earning the industry a market value of approximately $718 million. How about that? Another cycle.
Not only do pads and tampons create a huge amount of waste in and of themselves, they also include chemicals used to bleach and sanitize them that are later released into the environment and our bodies.
While we may think we solved the “period problem” we didn’t hit on the ultimate solution to period management in the early years of the previous century. Cotton’s lifespan, possible gynecological effects (particularly TSS), and effects on the environment make it a less than desirable choice. Fortunately, human ingenuity is at work in this department, and a few female-friendly, earth-friendly alternatives are gaining in popularity. The DivaCup and the MoonCup (based in the UK) can be substituted for tampons; these are bell-shaped silicone inserts which can be emptied of blood every twelve hours, then washed and stored. That may sound unappealing, but keep in mind that the average woman releases only about an ounce of blood per cycle; if you’ve seen a used pad or tampon, you can handle a Cup. There are also washable pads and, if you’re the crafty type, instructions on how to make your own!
Learn more about Eco-feminism at the Young Feminist Leadership Conference! Also watch an English rap battle about tampons versus an alternative!: http://www.mooncup.co.uk/
The sanitary product lying on a red calendar from Shutterstock