Going green: sustainable menstruation products

On any given day, 800 million human beings are menstruating. If you menstruate and have social media, there is a high chance you also get targeted adverts for a wide variety of new ‘eco-friendly’ menstruation products. From menstrual cups to re-usable pads, the adverts try to persuade you of two things: firstly, periods are fun now! And secondly, your tampons and pads are bad for the environment, and if you were truly green, you’d switch to their wondrous new product. The Saalt menstrual cup is now available in “seafoam green”, and is, apparently, “functional but elegant”.

It is easy to be cynical about these products. Reusable pads seem like a potential return to the days of using rags that were then washed for re-use. It has taken years for even some progress to be made in the public discussion of menstruation – a process that has barely begun and has far to go. Good Housekeeping published an article in June entitled “How to have an eco-friendly period”. Is it not enough for our periods to now be shown as red in adverts? Why must they now be green too?

Periods are political. They are also natural, and therefore it is probably unsurprising that they’re something that’s been focussed upon for sustainability. The message of much of this advertising is that periods take you back to nature, and so you should protect nature too. It should be obvious that that message is problematic on a number of levels.  Despite what the adverts might tell you, for many if not most people, having a period is not a case of sunshine and daisies. Adding to this the pressure of getting through it in a ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ nature is far from helpful. Menstruation has always been as cultural as it has been physical. Women have been accused of not being clean enough, serious enough, and now there is a danger that we guilt menstruating people about not being green enough too.

Is it not enough for our periods to now be shown as red in adverts? Why must they now be green too?

But a larger range of options is no bad thing. The kind of tampons which were patented in 1931, and menstrual pads are essentially a more developed version of the rags that had used for centuries before this. It has been reported that tampons and sanitary towels add around 200,000 tonnes of waste to landfill every year: our current products clearly are not good for the environment. Time is ripe for some change. The most popular brand of menstrual cup, and probably the best-known name for the product, is the Mooncup.  The other growing option is washable and absorbable underwear, such as Modibodi, or washable pads such as Eco-pad. These are mostly marketed as ethical and “naturally-inspired” alternatives.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the mistrust of new solutions. Menstrual cups have been linked in limited research to prolapses and concerns have been raised over their long term impacts. However, as with many aspects of gynaecological health, the amount of research remains limited. Despite previous concerns about a heightened risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome from using menstrual cups, research has failed to back this up. Concerns have also been raised about the poor quality of some menstrual cups on the internet, and the existence of counterfeit products of particular brands.

Part of reducing the possible risks from menstrual cups is providing good education on their proper use. If inserted and removed correctly, there is little evidence they are harmful. This means that eco-friendly solutions also have to be paired with an increase in menstrual education and an increased openness about periods and the female anatomy in general. Funds from the tampon tax are currently helping to fund Mooncup’s ‘Let’s talk’ campaign. In two hour educational sessions in schools and youth centres,  they breakdown myths about virginity and sex, through their discussion of menstrual cup use. This is a brilliant example of green issues not just being something that matter for their own sake. The green solutions of the future can build a better world for everyone.

Our current products clearly are not good for the environment.

The cost of menstrual products is also a key issue. Many of the products marketed as more eco-friendly in the UK market are far more expensive than those you might typically find on a supermarket shelf. For an ethical or green tampon, the cost of a box may be more than a few pounds extra, and this really adds up. However, the reusable nature of growing alternatives can overcome this hurdle. The menstrual cup, in particular, has enormous potential in combating global period poverty. Menstrual cups have been used in campaigns for women’s health in rural Kenya for example, and are also being offered in the UK as part of many period poverty schemes. With global period poverty still largely unchallenged, exploring new options is essential. One menstrual cup, costing less than £20, can be used for up to 10 years. Not only are they more eco-friendly, but perhaps more importantly, they provide dignity and solutions in a far more cost-effective and sustainable way for a number of communities. Menstrual cups then become more than about a self-conscious effort to be more green. Instead, they’re a reusable, sustainable, and pragmatic option. They can help to counter taboos about periods, virginity, and gender segregation. They can offer dignity to the most impoverished around the world, and are a long-term solution, rather than a short-term disposable item.

Thinking about the environmental impact of menstruation may have had its ironic or limiting moments. When the alternatives are linked to consumerism and selling affluent women a “closer-to-nature experience,” it is fair to raise eyebrows. But thinking about changes on a larger scale, alongside funding and education, green options can be a tool for massive feminist change in the future. More choice and a financially viable option for menstruating people around the globe is surely only a good thing. If anything, the search for environmentally friendly options is affording openness to a topic too often shrouded in mystery and shame.

This article has been updated to include information about Mooncup’s concerns about poor quality and counterfeit menstrual cups

Image Credit: Marco Verch via Flikr