Disposable menstrual products are an environmental disaster – but there are alternatives that are better for the planet, your health, and your purse (and they’re a life saver for field work!). So why isn’t anyone talking about them?
This may seem like a strange topic for a blog about ecology, but I believe the taboo around menstruation is preventing discussion of this issue which has huge consequences for both women’s health and the environment. Australia in particular seems to be behind other parts of the world on awareness and availability of alternative products. I also want to share my personal experiences with my fellow female ecologists, because switching to reusable menstrual products has made my life much easier, especially when it comes to doing field work.
What’s wrong with disposables?
Assuming that there are around 6 million women of menstruating age in Australia, each using around 300 tampons or pads per year, a total of 1.8 billion disposable menstrual products end up in landfill every year (not to mention all the packaging as well). These products often contain plastics, adhesives, and chemicals such as bleaches, dyes and fragrances and can do serious harm to marine wildlife when they end up in rivers and oceans. Although it was difficult to find a reliable estimate of how long they take to degrade, it can be anywhere from weeks to years depending on the conditions, while the plastic components can last effectively indefinitely.
And it’s not just the waste that causes problems – the greater part of the environmental impact is in the production (Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm 2006). Cotton requires huge amounts of water, pesticides and fertilisers to grow (plus significant greenhouse gas emissions), and of course fossil fuels are used in the production of plastics.
So what are the alternatives?
One (small) survey of Australian women by the Crimson Movement (O’Hara and Gomez 2013) found that over half of the respondents had never heard of reusable menstrual products, so for those who have no idea what I’m talking about here is a brief overview. RuMPs refer to cloth pads and menstrual cups (as well as some less common products like sea sponge tampons that I won’t talk about here). There are many different brands of cloth pads and menstrual cups, including a few that are made here in Australia (some examples pictured).
Cloth pads work in the same way as the disposable versions, but are made of absorbent fabrics such as cotton or bamboo (in lots of pretty colours and prints!), and wrap around your underwear and snap on with press studs. They can be machine washed and reused, and can last for several years with proper care.
Menstrual cups are an alternative to tampons; however unlike tampons they are designed to collect menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it. Most are made from medical grade silicone or rubber (latex) and can be worn safely for up to 12 hours without risk of toxic shock syndrome (a potentially fatal illness that has been associated with tampon use). After use you just rinse them out with water and reinsert, and then at the end of your cycle you can sterilise them by boiling or soaking with a dissolvable sterilising tablet. Although the up-front cost is relatively high (around $20-$60), menstrual cups can last for up to 10 years with proper care.
My experience of RuMPs
Having only recently found out about RuMPs myself, my first response was curiosity and probably mild skepticism. But the reviews on youtube (an excellent place to go for more information) were so overwhelmingly positive that I was convinced to buy a menstrual cup, and I have been completely converted. I now feel increasingly angry that these products are not more widely available or even talked about – why had no-one told me there was another option, and why aren’t they available in supermarkets or pharmacies?
I suspect that a large part of the problem is that the companies that produce and sell disposable products make a lot of money making sure that you buy their products every month. In comparison, most cloth pads and menstrual cups are produced by small companies or stay-at-home mums, and sold online directly from the maker. This may be another positive for those who are concerned about their social responsibility and like to support small businesses.
As an ecologist who spends a lot of time out in the field or travelling either for my research, work or fun, using a menstrual cup has made a huge difference. I’m sure many women have experienced the nightmare of getting your period just before a field trip, or being caught out in a remote area without a tampon. If you have a menstrual cup with you, you don’t have to worry about carrying a whole stash of products with you, or how to dispose of them, or where the next toilet stop is. Of course, there is still a place for disposable products, particularly in areas where you don’t have access to clean water for cleaning your cup.
RuMPs may not be for everyone, but for me there are so many benefits. They are convenient, comfortable, safe, cheap (in the long run), and eco-friendly. The only drawback I can see is that they are not readily accessible, but as more people make the switch I hope that the increasing demand will put pressure on large companies to make them more widely available. And I hope there will be more discussion and education so that women are aware of all the options available to them.
Mazgaj, M., Yaramenka, K. and Malovana, O. (2006) “Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Sanitary Pads and Tampons”, Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm
Lee Tanya O’Hara and Jac Torres Gomez (2013) “Menstrual Products and their Impact on the Environment in Australia”, Crimson Movement – http://crimsonmovement.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Crimson-Movement-Menstrual-Products-and-their-Impact-on-the-Environment.pdf
https://www.youtube.com/user/preciousstarspads (reviews and general info)
Where to find Australian made cloth pads and menstrual cups:
http://www.etsy.com/ – search for cloth pads and refine to Australian sellers only