In our house, we’ve been making more sustainable choices, from cutting down on plastic to reducing food waste. Our choices are often both ecological and economical, with more durable, long-term options replacing their disposable counterparts. While not entirely zero-waste, we have made huge strides with small swaps such as cloth towels and napkins, beeswax wraps, and bringing our own bags and containers whenever possible.
Despite our leap into low-waste living, I was oddly hesitant to tackle waste reduction when it came to my cycle. For better or for worse, women are taught to be discreet about periods; disposable items that can be easily tossed or flushed down the drain make that easy. And yet, the more I thought of it, the more it bothered me that I wasn’t actively taking steps towards a more eco-friendly approach each month.
As we all know, the most common menstrual care choices are disposable tampons and pads. A National Geographic article recently stated:
“In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste.”
Pad wrappers, tampon strings, and tampon applicators are all made of plastic. There’s plastic in the pads themselves and even bits of plastic in most tampons’ absorbent core (yikes!). To top it off, these plastic-wrapped things made of plastic are often wrapped in more plastic to be stored on shelves. GAH! Most of this plastic cannot be recycled, as it is considered medical waste. In the end, that means it’s all stuck on our planet for a long, long time.
So I turned to two solutions: the menstrual cup and cloth pads.
Most menstrual cups are silicone-based, and they are inserted into the vagina to collect blood which is then dumped out. Their flexible form relies on the vacuum-like benefits of the vaginal walls to stay in place. Yes! Built-in technology!
There are so many advantages to using a cup. You only need one, it can last up to 10 years, and you can even have it in place for up to 12 hours. Cups also collect way more blood than even a super+ tampon, so for those who have very heavy flows, they can be pretty revolutionary.
I tell people interested in trying a cup to watch YouTube videos for guidance. Learn which folding technique is best for your body and how to do a basic test to be sure your cup is properly placed. Here are some good ones. Don’t be shy about your research; it requires some technical knowledge and isn’t immediately intuitive.
Amy Schumer had a funny moment in one of her stand-up routines about how her first experience with a menstrual cup reminded her of a scene in Kill Bill. If you don’t get the reference just… prepare yourself. There will be blood. It will get better. It’s not rocket science, but it is admittedly tricky.
I told myself I would allow three cycles with the new system, and if it still didn’t work, I’d move on. Luckily, I found the right cup and had my technique down by month three, and have not bought any period gear in well over a year. My original purchase actually came with two cups (one smaller, one larger) for $24. When a box of tampons is $7-$9, the cost savings add up quickly!
When I first embarked on this zero-waste menstrual journey, I had no interest in purchasing cloth pads, as I have never been a pad-user. However, I decided I needed a few pads as back-up during the adjustment to the cup, so I opted to make a handful of my own. For the first few months, I would wear the pads on heavier days, and they were surprisingly comfortable. Now, I use them overnight, when needed. I wish I had had them around during my postpartum days!
If you know basic machine sewing, cloth pads are easy to make, and they make for a great upcycling project. You can purchase a pattern, like I did, to use as a guide. This one requires only straight lines, which makes it even easier! However, you can also just use an existing pad and trace the shape, if you have a pad you know fits you well (I did not).
Hunt around your house a bit, and you can likely find all the fabrics you need:
– a soft top layer that will go against your body (flannel)
– a middle absorbent core (in my case, cut up old towels)
– moisture-resistant backing (I chose anti-pill fleece)
Each pad took about 10 minutes to make, once I knew the system. The only tricky part is snaps; I had a snap fastener at home — see if you know someone who owns one if you don’t have one yourself.
Of course, if sewing isn’t your jam, cloth pads abound. You can buy them at most large retailers alongside disposible products. You can also check out period underwear brands that are more recently on the market, which may make for a nice compliment as back-up to those using the cup, as well.
Get to Know Your Flow
Besides the obvious benefits to the environment, as well as the incredible cost savings, I found that actually confronting my period was an unexpected advantage. By using a cup, you are forced to get to know your period a little bit better, and I learned more first few months with the cup than through decades of tampon use. I also take a moment each month to marvel at the fact that such a simple solution exists. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but a zero-waste period is achievable and kiiiiiind of awesome!