One for the ladies: zero waste menstruation

To be fair, I probably have never had an entirely waste-free period, but only because of my need for chocolate! This post is for those of us with a menstrual cycle… or anyone else with a particular interest in learning more about women’s hygiene. A warning to the men who intend to read this. Please don’t continue reading if you can’t handle a frank discussion on uterine walls being shed and coming out of the vagina in the form of blood.

I’m going to skip the preamble today, aside from acknowledging that periods can be very messy. Especially when they come unexpectedly. Or when you are unprepared. Or when you have a heavy flow.

Suffice to say, one incident in high school (thank goodness I went to an all-girls school!) was enough for me to be permanently paranoid that my fertility is on show for the world to see whenever I have my period.

So, you can trust me to be honest when it comes to the coverage that the various waste-free options have to offer.

I delved into the world of waste-free periods about two years ago (though being pregnant has effectively made my trial 9 months shorter) and have first-hand experience in 2 of the 3 products I am going to talk about today.

The first thing I tried was a menstrual cup. Friends had recommended it, and I was just starting to get really serious about waste so I thought I would give it a go.

Initially, I was very disappointed. It leaked out the sides well before it was full and I couldn’t figure out why. I also had a little bit of pain and had to take it out and replace it a few times to get the right position. After researching online and re-reading the instructions, I realised I wasn’t inserting it completely correctly.

The menstrual cup probably took me a good 4 cycles until I was confident that I was using it properly, and after that, I found it highly effective. However, there was still the aforementioned issue of paranoia, and the occasional tendency for it to fill up when I was not able to empty, clean and reinsert it (for example in the middle of teaching a class full of students).

So, I had replaced tampons with a menstrual cup but I still felt the need to wear panty liners or pads as an extra precaution, and sometimes they were necessary. Therefore the next step was to try washable pads.

I’m not one to judge you if the idea of a washable pad makes you baulk. Truth be told, it’s not the pleasantest thing to clean. However, for me, the issue of disposable pads going to landfill was more of a catastrophe than having to wash my blood off a cloth surface.

While it’s been long enough that I am struggling to remember the sensation of walking around with no protection other than a disposable pad, I think the feeling of doing the same but with a cloth pad is comparable. You still get a bit of wetness, which is why I far prefer the menstrual cup as the primary means of protection, but if you’ve relied only on disposable pads I suspect this will be a fairly similar experience.

Both of these – the menstrual cup and cloth pads – come with a higher initial cost than their disposable counterparts so for your first period you will spend far more than what you normally would. Menstrual cups go for about $50 and cloth pads range from about $12-$25 each, depending on the size and brand. I needed to spend about $300 on my set of cloth pads when I first started to make sure I wouldn’t run out.

However, given that in Australia tampons and pads are still subject to the GST (while condoms and lubricant are not), perhaps it’s better to pay for these ‘luxury items’ far less frequently by opting for the reusable products, rather than submitting yourself to the sexist GST month in, month out.

While ultimately neither of these products will last forever, the reduction in waste sent to landfill over the lifespan of them is dramatic, even if you look at just one woman’s use.

Although I’ve not yet got the first-hand experience for the newest item on the zero-waste period market – period-proof underwear – I have several friends who’ve recommended them, so I will definitely use these when I get my period back again, probably still in conjunction with the menstrual cup.

I’ll do a follow-up to discuss the merits of all three options again when I have the insider’s knowledge.

So, now that I have discussed the ins and outs of eliminating single-use products from menstruation (aside from the chocolate, of course), I’m curious. Have I convinced anyone to give it a go?

If you’re still not convinced, let me leave you with two final thoughts (and coincidentally they form the core philosophy of this blog.

1: Living better is about small steps that you are ready to take to improve the way you live and how that impacts on the environment. So don’t feel that you need to go all out straight away. I took my time to wean off of disposable feminine hygiene products.

2: Revisit your primary motivation for making small changes in your lifestyle. If you examine your motivation and, like me, find that reducing waste is more important to you than the potential ‘ick factor’, you might have to re-evaluate your choice!

Trust me, while it may be weird at first, it doesn’t take long to get used to a new way of dealing with menstruation. Humans are incredibly adaptable!