Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Green Guide to the Red Tide

Written by Niina Pollari
 Active ImageThese days, it seems like there’s nothing secretive about having your period. Magazine ads and TV spots feature beautiful women in light-colored clothing conspiratorially promising us “new,” slick, disposable comfort and ease from our monthly troubles. Still, one aspect of the period remains taboo. For some puzzling reason, we hear very little about “greener” alternatives and the ways they can benefit our own health and that of the environment around us.
These days, it seems like there’s nothing secretive about having your period. Magazine ads and TV spots feature beautiful women in light-colored clothing conspiratorially promising us “new,” slick, disposable comfort and ease from our monthly troubles. Still, one aspect of the period remains taboo. For some puzzling reason, we hear very little about “greener” alternatives and the ways they can benefit our own health and that of the environment around us.

Even though “green goggles” are in vogue, relatively few magazines cover the topic of natural alternatives for your period, and the ones that do tend to be progressive in nature and have lower circulation in numbers. But the media at large—and as a result the majority of the female population—pays little attention to the sustainability of disposable menstrual products. We have a philosophy to use once and discard. But what happens to all those used pads and tampons? How biodegradable are they and where do they go? And, the ickiest question, just how much of this kind of garbage is there?

I’ll tackle that last one first. OK, so the average woman produces between 200-300 pounds of used period products during her lifetime. Multiply that by the 85 million women who are of menstruating age in the United States alone, and you have no small pile of garbage!

And if you’ve been watching those commercials, you know that many of these products feature plastic elements—applicators, liners, etc. These are usually made of a plastic called polyethylene, and even though it breaks down eventually, it will stick around for decades. This means that by the time today’s young adult women hit menopause, the products they used as teens will still be hanging around!

And compared to many other plastics, polyethylene also uses larger amounts of fossil fuels when it’s produced which contributes to global warming. When we begin to think this way, an item we are conditioned to consider sanitary, starts to seem anything but.

But good news—there are lots of ways earth-conscious gals can reduce this aspect of their personal carbon footprint and stay healthy and happy. Below are some alternatives that go beyond buying the tampon with the cardboard applicator. And the process doesn’t have to be traumatic or expensive. All you recessionistas out there should know that switching to reusable period products can be very beneficial for your wallet.

Think about it. The average woman is on her period for about 40 years, and 40 times 12 is 480 periods. Multiply that by $5 per month for products (a bare minimum!), and it comes out to $2400, not counting inflation. Many of the products I outline here are much more affordable in the long run, but like disposable products, none are without their disadvantages. Read about them, investigate them, and consider which one might be right for you.

The Menstrual Cup
Although the name makes it sound like a sports tournament, a menstrual cup is a much smaller deal and involves no physical exertion. It consists of a small receptacle made of soft rubber or latex that sits low on the uterus and pretty much just catches and collects any blood flow. Menstrual cups are nonporous and reusable and must be emptied out about as often as you would change a pad or a tampon.

You do so by pouring the fluid in the toilet or—if you’re in a private bathroom—in the sink. It’s got a stem to make it easier to retrieve, and you can’t feel it at all when it’s inserted correctly. The menstrual cup also has many health benefits. First, no cup has ever been associated with toxic shock syndrome (a rare but dangerous reaction tied to conditions created by tampons). Menstrual cups also contain no bleach or dioxin, both of which have been found in tampons.

At between twenty-eight and forty-five dollars, it is easy on the pocketbook and lasts at least ten years. (I’ve been using mine since 2006, and it shows no signs of wear.) A potential disadvantage is that menstrual cups can be tedious to empty in a public restroom although many women and girls believe this to be a minor problem easily solved with some wet paper towels.

Natural Sea Sponges
Perhaps the “greenest” alternative out in terms of disposability, these small sponges biodegrade completely at the end of their life cycle because they originate in nature. Sea sponges conform to your body like tampons, and they absorb approximately the same amount of fluid but contain no dioxin or bleach.

The disadvantage of sponges is that they need to be boiled and disinfected frequently because they’re porous (unlike the rubber and silicone cups). Sponges can be reused for up to six months. The prices vary, but typically they’re about twelve dollars for two. If you choose this alternative, please seek out a reputable company like Jade and Pearl. Don’t just buy any old sponges in the store as these are often synthetic!

Cloth Pads and Liners
These soft cotton pads feature a sleeve that snaps to your underwear and a liner that goes inside the sleeve. Then, when you’re ready to switch, you take out the liner and put a new one into the sleeve. The old one goes into a “wet bag” (just a plastic bag will do so it won’t dry out) until you can wash it. Cloth pads are super soft and have no plastic elements in them, which means no sticky feel and absolutely no crinkly sounds (the thing I always hated most about pads).

The biggest disadvantage about reusable cloth liners is the obvious—the laundry—but hey, you do laundry anyway, right? A cool bonus is that they come in funky colors and patterns: stars, zebra stripes, and even camouflage. A set of cotton pads (marketed in the US by the GladRags company) is about seventy dollars for day pads, night pads, and pantyliners, and they last as long as you want them to. And out of all the products on this list, the cloth pad is the only one you could make on your own—maybe a project idea for the next meeting of your radical sewing circle?

Organic Unbleached Tampons
There’s always going to be the girl who isn’t ready to make the leap into all-green territory just yet. If you’re that girl and you want to keep using tampons and pads, I urge you to seek out all-cotton unbleached varieties. These are products that spend a lot of time very close to and inside your body. The vagina has thin walls and a lot of blood vessels very close to the skin; who knows what the effects are of repeated exposure to bleached or chemically treated elements, irritants, or fragrances?

The advantage of all-cotton organic products is you can feel better and safer; the disadvantage is that they are a tiny bit more expensive than their bleached and chemically treated sisters, which makes this option the only pricier one on this list. Still, knowing that what goes into your body is safe is worth it.

The above is just a primer meant to expand your knowledge. If any of the “green” options sound good to you, then by all means do some further research and give one a try if it feels right. But the main point I am trying to make is this: we should always observe, question, and take responsibility for the patterns that our modern life encourages us to make. We should also begin to understand the habits of consumption and waste production of which we are a part, and we should do nothing thoughtlessly.

Where there’s a lack of information from the mainstream media—such as is the case with these alternative menstrual products—then we should seek to fill in the gaps ourselves by reading, asking questions, and finding out the facts. This is the way we become conscious consumers and make sound decisions that inform our own well-being in a world that’s rapidly changing both because of and despite us.

For more information, check out:
alternet.org

Share this post