As I write this, April – Earth Month – has just come to a close. I’m admiring the seedlings awaiting daylight in the windowsill; I’m recycling my local pizza box from dinner; and I’m pleased at the Biden administration’s announcement about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As wonderful as those things are, I’m actually here to talk about something else. I’m here to talk about menstruation.
“That time of the month.” The crimson wave. The visit from Aunt Flo.
It’s a taboo subject – hushed up, euphemized, and glossed over with glib remarks about unhinged emotions and chocolate cravings. But it’s a real thing, a natural process that takes place in real bodies.
And, it produces a real amount of waste – plastic and non-biodegradable – every month. On average, someone who menstruates uses around 11,000 pads and tampons in their lifetime. Those products end up in landfills, where they will last far beyond our memories.
Not to mention, the menstrual product industry has gone to great lengths with the advancements in plastics to make periods “discreet,” odor-free, and sanitized. In other words: invisible and non-discussable. Additionally, the convenience of disposable products creates a cycle of purchasing ever more to replace what’s been used.
(A note on word usage: Recognizing that not everyone who has a period identifies as a woman, I haven’t limited my language to “women” and “girls.”)
It’s time to break free of the disposable-plastic cycle, connect with your body, and start talking about periods!
As a starting point, here are my favorite sustainable alternatives to conventional products, some of which you can find in downtown Three Rivers at World Fare:
A menstrual cup is a small, generally bell-shaped cup made of soft, flexible, body-safe material that is inserted into the vagina to collect fluid. It creates a seal to prevent leaking, and it holds a couple of ounces (way more than a tampon) and therefore doesn’t need to be changed as often.
To be honest, I was a skeptic (and I think most are). When I first heard their praises sung by a peace-loving tree-hugger in my college dorm, I smiled and nodded politely. Tampons were a big enough hurdle, thank you. Little did I know I would join the squad a few years later!
After encouragement from others, I finally bought my first one in 2012 – a Diva Cup, although there are numerous brands available on the market now – at Love Your Mother, an earth-friendly goods store in downtown Three Rivers at the time.
I won’t deny that there was a learning curve, a few tears, and a lot of advice from more experienced friends in the first few cycles. I’m so glad that I stuck with it, though. I’ve learned so much about myself, and I don’t hesitate to say that this change has revolutionized the way I view my period and my body.
For those who can’t or decide not to use a menstrual cup, a non-applicator tampon is an option that creates less waste than conventional tampons (o.b. is a popular brand). Without the applicator, it does require you to get more personal with your body, but to a lesser degree than the cup. It can also take some practice at first. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll send less plastic to the dump every time you use them!
And, if you just can’t do without the applicator, there are still organic and women-led brands out there. Since menstrual products spend so much time in contact with our bodies, I think it’s worth the extra cost to use products made with healthy components, created by those intimately familiar with the cycle.
Washable pads and liners
For those who can’t or decide not to use internal products, cloth pads and liners are a great option. They’re also good as backup in case of leaks in combination with a cup or tampon, or on light flow days. Made of several layers of soft fabric, they generally snap into place around the underwear in place of an adhesive strip. Rinse after use and keep up on laundry, and you’ll be good to go.
This is a method that I have not myself used, but the market for “period panties” seems to be booming recently, if my targeted Facebook ads are any indication. These are basically underwear with built-in pad protection. Many brands boast a thin, low profile material (so you don’t feel like you’re wearing a diaper) and a variety of styles and colors. Simply wash and reuse!
Some with periods would rather their cycles go away completely, and I understand that feeling. For many, it’s painful and disruptive. But, I argue, let’s not keep it at arm’s length, fending it off with products that distance us from our own bodies and leave waste that will last for generations.
I don’t believe that “green” products are going to solve the stigma around periods – that’s up to us.
But I do believe they help us get to know our bodies better, instead of making the period process invisible. They connect us with the earth by creating a smaller footprint. And, sharing our personal experiences creates ripple effects, opening the conversation for others to deepen their relationship with themselves and with the planet.
Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, volunteers at World Fare and with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.
Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. My hope is that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.