There are plenty of problems with traditional methods of monthly management. Whether it’s the plastic packaging (one sanitary towel contains about the same amount of plastic as a supermarket carrier bag), the cotton in the products (a resource-intensive crop), or the fact that a lot of sanitary waste ends up in the oceans when women flush rather than bin, the environmental impacts are huge. An average woman will use around 11,000 disposable products throughout her lifetime, and the sheer number of women using these things across the globe means that even negligible averages of waste per head would amount to staggering piles of landfill.
So what can women to do be friendly to the environment at the same time as recognising the needs of our bodies? Recently, plenty of women have been thinking about this and innovating. The menstrual cup is probably the best-known option: the brand Mooncup offers one made from medical-grade silicone, which is reusable and lasts for years. Or there are ‘period pants’, which work like an all-day sanitary towel and can be washed and reused. And there are also ways to make going disposable more eco-friendly. To navigate the problem of tampon disposal, one female innovator has developed the Fablittlebag, a tiny biodegradable pouch which can be opened with one hand and is more discreet to dispose of. Menstrual discs, too, are essentially more absorbent tampons, which produce 60% less waste.
Yet when pricing up some of these options, it becomes evident that many of them are only available, at present, to those who can afford to be eco-warriors. Fablittlebags cost £2.99 each. At between £10 and £30 a pair, reusable period pants require a pretty big initial outlay if you’re buying enough to get you through one cycle. Neither of these is a feasible alternative for the one in ten women who are already struggling to afford monthly supplies.
Hope for the planet, then, seems to rest on the menstrual cup, which, at £20 or under, ends up paying for itself within the year, and is relatively easy to get hold of. But I still think we need to probe a little further. Thinking about how we can make our womanhood and feminism agreeable to the planet can only be productively done after a number of hurdles have already been leaped – namely, making our womanhood and feminism digestible and unproblematic to the society around us.
Even living in one of the world’s most liberated societies, we suffer from period shaming. It is one of the reasons why period waste is such a big environmental problem: women are more likely to flush because it doesn’t leave an obvious and embarrassing reminder sticking out of the bin. But more than that, shame and concealment surrounding menstruation means that even the Mooncup isn’t a viable option for some women.
When the brand urges its users to ‘own your period’, it demands an environment and intimate knowledge of your body that some girls just don’t have. Besides needing a secure and private space in which to change the cup every six hours or so, a space where you don’t have to worry about spilling blood on the floor the first few times, and a living environment where you’re happy and able to sterilise your ‘device’ in the kitchen, a woman using a Mooncup has to understand terms like ‘labia’ and ‘vagina’ and be comfortable with those areas of her body.
When we use language like “It’s time for women to step up and do what we can to help preserve our environment”, we don’t help the women who already have the worst experience of menstruation, and are just trying to get by – we only add to the guilt which they face in a society that puts a taboo around one of the defining experiences of being a woman.
Only once we’ve broken down the secrecy and shame which is entrenched in the way that so many cultures think about periods can we begin to think about tackling period poverty and delivering aid to women in need in environmentally-friendly terms, because those options cannot yet be used comfortably and unashamedly by all.
If we want to broaden sustainable period practice, if we want to make these innovative options accessible and affordable to all women, the only solution is to open up the discussion around menstruation and women’s experience of it, to improve education and break down the taboo, and recast the way we think about managing ‘monthlies’ in real and honest terms.
Hopefully we’ll be able to help save our planet by flagging up to those who oppress us that it doesn’t pay to keep hushing up the basic biology of 50% of the population.
(featured image source: vitals.lifehacker.com)