Periods are messy. But not just in the way you think.
Single use menstrual hygiene products are a massive source of waste. About quarter of all people menstruate, and with an average cycle length, there could be 500 million people on their periods at any point. So if they are all using single use products, you can start to image the amount of waste that is being created just from menstruation!
Before I start talking about what we can do to tackle some of this waste, I want to acknowledge that period poverty is real, and a serious issue. Many women, especially globally but also in the UK, can't access sanitary wear because of their financial situation. In the extreme this can lead to them missing out on education and opportunities purely because they're on their periods. Unfortunately some of the suggestions I make below are more expensive than normal period products. They are reusable so over time can save money, but that initial cost is sometimes too much for people with limited income to even save for when you're struggling to by food. So for anyone that is able to afford these products, let us be very careful to not criticise what we are not living through. Also, buying any of these products for your local Food bank or women's shelter would be an amazing way to help the planet and support those in poverty!
So onto having a zero waste period!
There are three mainstream types of reusable period ware: menstrual cups, reusable pads, and period pants, which can be used alone or in combination. Each item will work well for some people and not so well for others and that's completely normal and expected.
Cups are probably the most comparable to tampons as they are worn internally. They are literally cups made of medical grade silicone which sit inside the vagina and collect blood, although they do not absorb it like a tampon. The cup can then be removed and the blood emptied into a toilet or sink, before being reinserted for use again. A recent large scientific study has shown "that menstrual cups are a safe option for menstruation management"(1). The benefits of using a cup compared to a tampon is not only that it saves waste being generated as one cup is only thing you need for a whole period, for several years, and thereby saves you money over all, but as it is not absorbent like a tampon it causes less vaginal dryness than tampons. One reason that it may be preferable over a reusable pad is that you can wear it with your normal underwear and if in the correct place it will not leak or be felt. Also as you can empty it and reinsert it, you don't need to carry any other reusable period items with you, or take home a used pad. The downsides are the upfront cost, usually about £20. You will make a saving overall if you use it for a few cycles, but often that initial cost is tough for many people. It's also a bit awkward to get used to inserting and removing, and can be a bit uncomfortable to put in at first and ensure its in the correct place. Similar to a tampon, when it's in the correct place you shouldn't be able to feel it, but it is larger than a tampon so needs to be folded or squeezed to put in. To ensure no leaking, your cervix must be above the cup and may need a few attempts to work out which way your cervix tilts, but then you'll be set. Usually after a couple of cycles people are used to it and it's second nature to them. Menstrual cups can be used with an IUD but may require a little more care to make sure the strings of the IUD aren't pulled when removing the cup - which is a small possibility. I often read people say that cups mean you cannot get Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) like you can get from tampons, but isn't true (note the study above), although we do not yet know if the rate of TSS is lower with cups.
These are probably the most like their single use counter part out of the three options. They are reusable pads made out of a variety of different materials which are absorbent and then can be washed before using again. You can buy many different types and materials and absorbencies, like regular pads. They can be great if you don't get on with a menstrual cup and are easier to change than period pants. They are obviously not adhesive like disposable pads but often they have some additional means of securing them to your underwear like a popper on the wings. The slightly tricky thing with reusable pads is that if you're out, you will need to put a used pad back in your bag to take home to wash. You will also need enough pads to last your cycle which could be expensive, or remember to wash and dry them half way through to ensure you have enough to keep you going.
Period underwear has seen a rise in popularity over the last few years for a new approach to periods. They are basically the combination of a pair of underwear and a reusable pad. This means you don't need a bulky pad in addition to you underwear as it is already built in, which also means it will not move about when you do so it might be more suitable to activities like sports. They need to be changed at a similar rate to pads so may prove trickier if you're out and need to replace a whole pair of underwear instead of just a pad, and it would also need to be kept in your bag until later. They're also much more expensive than reusable pads, from upwards of £25 and so as you will need a few for a cycle, they are inaccessible to many people in comparison to pads.
For many people the best way to approach a zero waste period is to find what works best for them as there is nothing more wasteful than buying a lot of new things just because they're "reusable". If you can't use tampons, a cup is unlikely to work for you. If you hate pads, then don't buy reusable pads as you will be unlikely to use them.
For many people the best period may be a balance of a couple of these items. I love a menstrual cup but use reusable pads or period pants at the end of my cycle or at the beginning when I'm unsure when I'm about to start. If you would like to try some of these products but are concerned about the cost, ask some of your friends to get them for you for a birthday - my menstrual cup was a birthday gift from a friend and it was such a brilliant present as I had really wanted to try it out!
Other zero waste period items to consider:
- If none of the above options work for you and you need to keep using tampons, consider either using applicator-free tampons or invest in a reusable applicator so you don't need to throw away plastic with every tampon.
- Hot water bottle: if you don't have one you can even make your own heat pad out of scrap material and rice, which you can then heat up in the microwave.
- Chocolate: essential for some, look for Fairtrade ones wrapped in paper and foil instead of plastic.
- Pain killers: if you need them, don't stress the waste. It's not worth it.
- Hormonal contraception: if you need it to control your periods or make them manageable because of conditions like PCOS or endometriosis, please don't worry about the waste. You need them, and it's not your fault the pharmaceutical companies are slow on the zero waste train!
So now go forth and have a less wasteful period!