But let's start with the big picture:
- E-Magazine reports that, in 1998, 6.5 billion tampons were thrown in the garbage or flushed into our already overburdened sewer systems and 13 billion disposable menstrual pads were thrown away.
- The Center for Marine Conservation reported that more than 170,000 plastic tampon applicators polluting our oceans were collected during beach cleanups in 1998 and 1999.
- Most disposable menstrual products are virgin paper products and deforestation in the tropics accounts for nearly 20 percent of human-generated, climate-changing carbon emissions.
Add the global warming and trash concerns to worries about dioxin, a cancer-causing bi-product of bleaching paper and cotton, and many women are choosing reusable menstrual cups instead of disposable tampons (brands and resources outlined below the jump).
While feminine hygiene products may not be the biggest environmental threat or the most effective way to personally address global climate change, if you've already tackled things like your home energy efficiency, shifted to renewable energy, and reduced the carbon footprint of your personal transportation, then you might shift your attention to some of the other ways you can make a difference. Shifting away from disposable feminine hygiene products is an easy lifestyle change to that still makes a difference.
Feminine Care Products Are A Big Industry
We've all seen the ridiculous commercials of women wearing clingy white outfits and dancing on the beach because of the freedom delivered by whatever disposable product they've chosen. In fact, several brands of hygiene product go right to the root word for freedom in naming their products: Libra and Libresse are brands of tampons.
There's money in menstrual products, a lot of it. One market analysis predicts that the industry will gross $14.5 billion dollars a year by 2015. (That's a lot of freedom!) But that same analysis warns that "Reduced acceptance of throwaway convenience and increased emphasis on resource optimization, environmental benefits . . ." are among the challenges facing the industry.
Among the other challenges for the industry, an aging market share as baby boomer no longer need them. Kotex, a brand I definitely grew up thinking was for old people, is trying to capture the teens and tween audience by mocking the marketing previously used by Kotex and other brands.
Their "Get Real" campaign offers tampons and pads in bright colors and encourages girls to "take a stand against bland" by ordering custom designs on their pads. No, seriously.
Are Reusable Menstrual Products Going Too Far?
The decision between cloth and disposable diapers, something a baby will wear for about 3 years, gets a lot of press and is an expected eco-decision facing a new parent. Yet the decision between reusable and disposable menstrual products, something a woman will use nearly three months a year for most of their lives, is not even one many women consciously made.
I'm not really that nostalgic for the technology of my grandmother's era, it wasn't that long ago that reusable products were the norm. Today though, shifting from disposable tampons and maxis to a menstrual cup or reusable pads requires you to reject the notion that manufacturers are trying to sell you that your entire life can be neat, tidy, convenient, and, if you want, sweet smelling.
But if you're found this Green Moms Carnival blog because you are a mom, you've already been disabused of that notion and know that life is messy. By the time you've lived through the exploding diapers phase of infancy and survived potty training and the recurring stomach viruses of the preschool years, your entire perception of what's messy and gross may have shifted.
I actually discovered my first reusable pad in college when I was seeking to be more radical in my life anyway. I purchased a set as an act of rebellion against corporate control of my cycle and ordered a Keeper not long after. Since then, it seems a lot less radical. I find them more comfortable and convenient than tampons and disposable pads ever were.
Saving Money with Reusable Menstrual Cycle Products
The makers of one reusable menstrual cup estimates that disposable products cost an average of $4 USD per month, but no doubt some women spend more. A decade of using a reusable cup would save the user hundreds of dollars.
Most women probably spend $4-10 USD month on menstrual pads. Over a lifetime of menstrual periods, that adds up to a couple thousand dollars, at least. Reusable cloth pads require a larger initial investment to either purchase or sew, but last for years and years.
The Reusable Menstrual Cup is a Green Alternative to Tampons
The reusable menstrual cup has been helping women manage their moon cycles for nearly a century with U.S. patents dating as far back as 1932. Cups are worn like a tampon and must be emptied and rinsed, or cleaned out with toilet tissue, every few hours. Unlike tampons, cups are made of a nonabsorbent material such as natural gum rubber (latex) or medical grade silicone that leave no fibers behind and are not drying. Menstrual cups can be used overnight and during sports activities or any other time you would wear a tampon. Available in several designs, most are compatible with intra-uterine devices (IUDs) and other birth control methods. Costs vary by make and model but are generally around $35 USD.
- The Keeper is a Food & Drug Administration approved latex cup available in two sizes that has been on the market since 1987. The Keeper is made in the United States, may last up to 10 years, and comes with a 3-month satisfaction guarantee for women wanting to try out a reusable menstrual cup. Fun tidbit about The Keeper: The 1992, the female scientists of Biosphere 2 chose The Keeper as their form of feminine hygiene.
- MoonCup (US) is manufactured by the same company as The Keeper and it is identical except that is is made of medical grade silicone and can be used by women with a latex allergy.
- MoonCup (UK) is manufactured by a Good Shopping Guide certified Ethical Company in the United Kingdom. The silicone MoonCup is available in Boots Pharmacies in the UK and online but may not be shipping to the United States due to a trademark dispute with the above mentioned MoonCup.
- Diva Cup is the Canadian competitor to the Keeper and Mooncup by a mother and daughter business out of Ontario. The silicone cup is available online and from distributors world wide. Retail locations in the United States and Canada include Whole Foods and Yes Markets.
- LadyCup is manufactured in the Czech Republic but can be shipped world-wide. The company claims to have improved flexibility of the silicone cup, which is available in several colors, and boasts a completely smooth design (no embossed logos on the product) for ease of maintenance.
- FleurCup, also silicone, is made in France and boasts easy insertion and extraction due to the cup's removal tab design. The company's frequently asked questions web page (in French) has some very nice animated graphics showing folding techniques for insertion that should be applicable to many brands of menstrual cup. (Told you this was going to get personal.)
- Lunnette is a Finnish company that manufactures both an uncolored silicone and blue cup. The blue cup may not be available in all countries due to importation approvals.
- MiaCup is a silicone cup manufactured in South Africa. The company donates 5 South African Rands to Food & Trees for Africa with every purchase.
Not all products will be available for shipping to all countries.
Reusable Menstrual Pads are a Green Alternative to Disposable Maxis
The most difficult thing about switching to cloth menstrual pads will probably choosing a brand and style. The choices in patterns and fabrics are nearly endless. There is organic cotton, linen, fleece, wool, plain un-dyed, bright colors, cute fabric patterns, snaps, elastic, velcro, stuff-ables, all-in-one, and more. But at it's simplest, a cloth pad is absorbent and comfortable. Many women prefer the experience of cloth to wearing disposables, and women with sensitive skin or feminine discomfort may enjoy them more than most.
It is not possible to list every manufacturer of cloth menstrual pads. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of small businesses, many run by work at home moms (WAHMs), sewing and selling pads from a variety of materials (nothing bland about the pads above). A few of the better known companies selling cloth pads, panty-liners, and even complete menstrual underwear including the following:
- Glad Rags are made by a U.S. company out of Oregon. The company makes all-in-one panty-liners and stuff-able menstrual pads in organic or conventional cotton fleece, as well as overnight pads and waterproof carry bags. The company offers several starter kits as well as kits designed to provide for all your needs during a menstrual period. Glad Rags are available to purchase online or through a variety of retailers including Whole Foods and MOM's Organic Markets in the United States.
- Many Moons, out of Victoria in Canada, offers a similarly designed pad to Glad Rags but with an optional nylon liner. They offer four sizes – overnight, mini, regular/maxi, and youth – in either "pastel" or "wild" fabric design sets.
- Luna Pads are designed differently than Glad Rags or Many Moons in that they come with a liner that snaps around a woman's underwear and pads that sit on the liners secured by small elastic straps. The company claims the design is more convenient because the pads can often be changed without needing to change out the liner. The company, based in Vancouver, Canada, offers a variety of sizes and fabric options and a hand flow chart to help customers decide which styles and quantities to purchase.
Sewing Homemade Menstrual Pads
Depending on sewing skills, making homemade fabric menstrual pads may be the most economical option of them all. Many small businesses selling cloth pads got started in this way. Fabric options for homemade pads are limitless and many women report success re-using old t-shirts and other absorbent scrap fabrics with softer, sometimes prettier, choices for a top layer.
There are numerous patterns available on the Internet appropriate for even novice sewers, many of whom may note that it doesn't matter very much if the hems are sewn straight because no one will see them. Another option is to purchase a few pads and copy the design you like best.
Caring for Cloth Menstrual Pads
Pad manufacturers will likely include washing instructions but most will recommend a simple cold rinse followed by a machine wash. Drying instructions may also vary, but both line drying and machine drying are options.
Because the pads will be worn near sensitive skin, fabric softeners, perfumes, and dyes are usually not recommended.
Other Eco-Friendly Tampon Alternatives
- Sea Sponge Tampons may appeal to women who find a cup uncomfortable. The sea sponge is an animal, so vegetarians may have ethical issues with their harvest and use as tampons. Sponges are rinsed between uses and must be disinfected between cycles. Environmentalists will want to take care that sponges are harvested in the least harmful manner possible to the ocean floor.
- Reusable Tampons made of cotton or knit are becoming a cottage industry. Much like a very small cloth diaper, they are washed and reused.
More Environmentally-Friendly Disposables
Many women find menstrual cups and reusable to be more convenient and more comfortable than disposables. Women who do not find reusables to be appropriate or convenient can still lighten the environmental load of their menstrual period. Organic and unbleached cotton and bamboo tampons and recycled paper pulp pads should be available wherever natural products are sold from manufacturers worldwide.
Large portions of this post were originally published on Suite 101: Save Money with Reusable Menstrual Cycle Pads: Cloth Sanitary Napkins are Eco-Friendly Alternative to Disposables and Save Money with Green Menstrual Cycle Products: Environmentally-Friendly Feminine Hygiene Alternatives to Tampons. Copyright Jennifer Mueller.