The ways in which we conceptualize and form opinions about menstruation not only intersects with cultural ideologies about feminism and gender equality, socioeconomics and consumerism, medicine and public health, but also greatly involves environmentalism. Historically, the intricacies of the menstrual cycle and reproductive healthcare have been widely misunderstood and even shamed by general society. Even in the present day menstruation remains a taboo topic. It is also frequently broadcast as an unpleasant burden and inconvenience that marketing and advertising industries’ products can free people that menstruate from.
Tampons sold in North America are most commonly made from rayon, cotton, or a blend of the two. Consider the life cycle of a rayon tampon with a polyester hull and plastic applicator. Rayon is made from cellulose fiber extracted from wood pulp of mature trees, and these fibers must undergo a process of bleaching with a multitude of harsh chemicals like carbon disulfide, chlorine, or dioxin, chemicals that can have various neurological, cardiovascular, immune system, and gastrointestinal effects in workers who have prolonged exposure. Long-term exposure of the most absorbent and sensitive tissue in the body to such harsh chemicals has been linked to increased incidence of yeast infections, micro-lacerations, endometriosis, and even cancer. Not to mention, the polyester hull and the plastic applicator are made from nonrenewable petroleum products, large amounts of water are required for the cooling process of polyester production, and carbon emissions are created at each stage of the production process and during transportation between sites.
The average person who menstruates will use around 12,000 tampons or pads, producing an estimated 250 to 300 pounds of disposable menstrual waste over the course of a lifetime, and in North America alone there are approximately 73 million menstruating people contributing to the 20 billion pads, tampons, or applicators being sent to landfills each year, according to the Lunapads website. Even when tampons are disposed of properly in solid waste and reach their intended destination of a landfill, these sites are incredibly hypoxic and make decomposition nearly impossible. Due to their high density, tampons are the slowest paper/cotton product to degrade compared to other hygienic products, especially if they have been bleached. Once disposed either in waterways or landfills, these products do not easily degrade, can travel thousands of miles when carried by currents, and will leach chemicals into the environment and spread even further when carried by precipitation overflow. An alternative to typical disposable tampons and pads are non-chlorine bleached all-organic-cotton products that are mostly chemical free (though even completely natural cotton can still contain pesticides and herbicides). They are generally applicator-free, thus causing less waste than traditional tampons, but are typically more expensive and still contribute to pollution in waterways and landfills.
Though they are more expensive in terms of up-front costs and require a repetitive process of cleaning with disinfectant or washing with fresh hot water, over time reusable menstrual products will prove to save hundreds of dollars and also have a significantly lower impact on the environment. Reusable, washable cloth pads work just like regular disposable pads, but instead of throwing them away after use, they are rinsed out, washed, and used again for multiple years. Reusable menstrual cups are another sustainable alternative to tampons; made of rubber or medical grade silicone, they are easy to fold and insert into the vagina a few inches below the cervix to ‘catch’ rather than absorb menstrual blood. The cup can be worn about six to twelve hours depending on the amount of flow, then removed, emptied into the sink or toilet, and rinsed with water before reinsertion. Cups are the most expensive reusable menstrual product and typically cost about $35 each, which, despite costing less in the long term, is a much higher initial investment than a box of typical tampons or pads, which in turn leads to an economic barrier that reduces access to sustainable options for many.
For those who can afford to spend $35, why aren’t reusable menstrual cups more widespread? It starts with limited awareness, limited availability, and limited accessibility to purchase. The details of menstruation and menstrual blood are often still perceived as taboo topics that elicit discomfort or disgust. Many feel pressure to hide menstruation as much as possible using nonintrusive and discrete sanitary protection, and are therefore often hesitant to discuss or consider adopting options that require navigation of one’s own anatomy and confrontation of one’s own menstrual blood. Pads and tampons can be bought at any convenience store, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a menstrual cup in the aisle at Stop N’ Shop. This is something that needs to be heard about, researched, and then purchased at a specialty store or ordered online, but if no one is talking about them, this obviously won’t happen either. Then there are the worries about leakage and impracticality and extra work to maintain cleanliness. The idea of handling bodily fluids meant to be discarded can be uncomfortable, especially when considering concerns about observing interpersonal boundaries about public hygiene while washing bloody menstrual cups and hands in a public restroom. But when weighing pros and cons, doesn’t the benefit of implementing more safe and sustainable practices outweigh the risk of a stranger in a public restroom seeing your menstrual blood? I think public restrooms see a hell of a lot worse than that on the regular.
The fact is, like anything else, if general society chooses to normalize and accept the reusable menstrual product, the stigma against it can and will disappear. Disposable tampons and pads are a technology meant to ‘free’ people from the inconveniences of menstruation, but these products are also derived from patriarchal ideas of menstruation as something needing to be kept concealed and managed in a patriarchal system. By reducing the stigma surrounding what is considered to be ‘proper’ or ‘hygienic’ menstruation management practices, as well as an overall widespread societal attitude shift away from overconsumption, people who menstruate can make personal choices that will contribute toward a healthier environment.