Plastic-Free Periods: Why You Should Consider Changing Your Conventional Period Care ASAP
Maybe you’ve invested in a reusable stainless steel water bottle. Maybe you’ve sworn off plastic straws forever. However you’re addressing the global plastics problem, there may be one frontier you’ve yet to traverse: the plastic-free period. It can seem daunting to change up what works—especially when it comes to something as delicate (read: essential!) as period protection. We’ve consulted with some experts in period protection and sustainability to examine how conventional period care is adding to plastic pollution, to dispel the concerns around plastic-free options and to help you break up with your unfriendly-to-the-earth period products, once and for all.
Period Product Pollution
From menstrual pads wrapped in plastic to tampons with plastic applicators, conventional menstrual care products are anything but environmentally friendly. But since we need them monthly, many of us continue to reach for these trusted methods so we can live our lives hygienically, without fear of accidental bleed-through and embarrassment. The cost for this monthly habit, however, is high.
“In the U.S., 20 billion menstrual products are disposed of annually. That’s an immense amount of waste going into our landfills and often our water sources,” says Cherie Hoeger, co-founder of Saalt. “But when you really break it down, the actual number of waste by-products generated by disposable menstrual products reaches three times that amount! That’s because the majority of tampons not only come with an absorbent layer of cotton and string, but also a plastic applicator, plastic wrapper and the cardboard box packaging for the shelf. That’s an average of three waste products per tampon, and an extra box for every few dozen.”
Ashlee Piper, sustainability journalist and the author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, adds “It’s estimated that a menstruating human will use 9600 tampons and pads in his/her lifetime and spend $200+ per year on menstrual care. Those menstrual care methods contain a lot of non-biodegradable and often non-recyclable plastics.”
A Plastic-Free Solution
With such staggering amounts of waste created by conventional period products, it seems overwhelming to try and reduce the environmental impact they create. But as it turns out, just a simple switch in how you manage your period can make a huge impact.
“One menstrual cup diverts 3,000 tampons and pads from landfills,” shares Cherie. “One cup can last 10 years, and 300 tampons a year translates to as many as 9,000 waste by-products.”
Menstrual cups are gaining in popularity, but for those who have never considered them or have never given them a try, the idea of using them in place of tampons or pads can seem daunting: Do they work? Are they comfortable? Are they safe? But choosing, and using, a silicone menstrual cup is often hailed as a game changer by those who have made the switch—and not only for its plastic-free impact on the planet.
“I’ve actually found that switching to a lower-waste period protocol has been easier than I thought, saves me a ton of money and is more comfortable and easy than ever before,” says Ashlee. “I personally like a menstrual cup (I use Dot Cup, which is a local Chicago, woman-owned company that has a 1-for-1 model that gives a cup to a menstruating person in-need—I love that!). It took me a few cycles to get the hang of it, but I love the convenience (can be safely worn for 12 hours!) and simplicity of it, and I find it’s actually made my cycles shorter (a lot of cup users have attested to this).”
Cherie agrees, adding that silicone menstrual cups can be better for the health of your vagina. “The Saalt Cup is made of 100 percent medical-grade silicone that is safe to use, hypoallergenic and naturally bio-compatible. And because it doesn’t dry you like tampons or leave a wet environment like pads, using the cup lessens the chance of irritation or infection while also maintaining your vagina’s unique pH balance. So in terms of personal health, the cup is an optimal choice.”
But Cathy Chapman, president of Lune North America, makers of the Lunette cup, warns consumers to know their silicone. “Not all menstrual cups are made the same. It’s super important to make sure that your menstrual cup is made from FDA-cleared silicone.” She cautions that “there are many menstrual cups that are available for purchase online that are made with questionable materials—some of which may cause an allergic reaction or can be a breading ground for bacteria. High quality menstrual cups (like the Lunette) are made to last for several years, so even the most expensive ones are a money saver compared compared to years’ worth of pads and tampons.”
Still, all three experts agree that silicone menstrual cups are a plastic-free option worth exploring. “It’s an optimal solution for the environment,” Cherie shares. “One cup can last up to 10 years, diverting a substantial amount of waste per menstrual cup user. Imagine the immediate decrease in waste if just 10 percent of women switched to the cup each year! Although silicone is a man-made polymer that does not biodegrade (which is why it’s so long-lasting), it can easily be recycled. And considering it can take several hundreds of years for each plastic product to decompose, we think four cups used within the average 40-year menstruation span—as compared to 12,000+ disposable products over a lifetime—is a huge win for the environment.”
That win for the environment means no plastics sitting in a landfill, and no micro-plastics ending up in our oceans. “The silicone that Lunette uses is made from silica sand and can be safely burned leaving simply the ash,” Cathy says. “No micro-plastics or period waste to deal with!”
And what about the concerns over Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), one of the risks of leaving tampons in too long? Do menstrual cup users have to worry about TSS, as well?
“As with any other period care product, it’s important to keep your menstrual cup clean, don’t leave it in too long and to use a trusted brand,” advises Cathy. “Menstrual cups have been a trusted period care product for decades. In fact, globally, only two cases of TSS relating to menstrual cup use have been reported and this was due to very prolonged use (inserted for seven days rather than the recommended 12-hour maximum).”
Ashlee adds, “I’m not a doctor, but I have left my cup in for a full 12 hours without issue. I can’t speak on whether or not they’re safer than a tampon (though, with all the chemicals in traditional tampons, I’ll take a gander and say cups made from medical-grade silicone are a safer bet, generally) because, well, you’re still putting something in your sensitive parts for a while, but I have not had an issue with the cup. If anything, I’ve had more comfortable, easier-to-manage cycles because of it.”
Changing the Conversation
As women continue to become more mindful of plastic-free periods, advocating for environmentally friendly and safe options, conversation surrounding menstruation needs to accompany any such advances.
“The biggest frustration when it comes to the period plastics problem is that the majority of people still find talking about periods taboo,” Cathy laments. “Yes, we are aware that people have them, but talking about them openly is still considered ‘gross’ and something we should pretend doesn’t really happen. The more we openly talk about menstruation, the more the press pushes to de-stigmatize menstruation, and the more access we have to safe period care, the better we all will be.”
Ashlee concurs. “I have many frustrations with how periods are treated generally. For one, mainstream period protection is a business, rather than a therapeutic imperative. Menstruation is villainized as gross, strange, something to be concealed and ashamed of. Moreover, period products in the U.S. are egregiously taxed and often priced out of reach for menstruating persons who are homeless or financially-insecure. So, companies dress their products up with molded applicators and pretty packaging and pump their products with scents (God forbid your vagina smells like a vagina!), chemical additives, and other garbage that they don’t need to disclose by law.”
“It’s almost like women are held captive by an industry that capitalizes on a biological function. It’s weird and wasteful,” she continues. “So, while menstrual cups and period panties aren’t perfect in every single way (as in, they’re not completely devoid of waste-creation and they’re not free), I find them to be a less wasteful and more empowering approach to a reality for many of us. And a menstrual cup forces you to be more hands-on with your anatomy, and I think that in and of itself is empowering at lessening the stigma around menstruation.”
So how do businesses concerned with plastic-free periods and sustainability move the conversation—and best practices—forward?
“We believe that a business governed by strong ethics and principles creates a powerful vehicle to bring about positive change,” Cherie says. “As entrepreneurs, what frustrates us most is seeing businesses that under-utilize their influence and ability to do more good in the world. There is so much every business can do to decrease their environmental footprint. In an industry where disposable products offer far more profit, we choose to stand by our commitment to sustainability and better health for our customers and our planet.”
And as consumers, we can stand in the truth of our anatomies, demand plastic-free period care and end the stigma around menstruation… period.
Curious about other plastic-cutting initiatives? Discover which cities are taking the lead in ending plastics pollution, and then read how one writer fared when she test-drove period panties.