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How to Have a Period Without Ruining the Planet

Tampons and pads all contain plastic, and generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year. Here's what you can do about it.

by Daisy Jones; illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
04 July 2019, 6:37am

Lead collage by Marta Parszeniew

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Periods are not generally really fun. You bleed once a month out your vagina, then you have to shove things up there so you don’t get blood all over the floor. There have been times I’ve had such bad cramps I’ve had to go to the work loos, get on all fours and groan like a cow giving birth, then return to my desk like nothing’s happened. It’s not normal. I know periods are also the definition of normal and “miraculous” because they indicate a person’s potential to create and incubate human life. But it seems like a weird pay-off, that’s all I’m saying.

They’re also not great for the planet. This is not our fault obviously. We’ve been bamboozled into spending a lot of money on products that: a) are a human necessity, and; b) contribute to polluting the environment. According to the Women’s Environmental Network, “Tampons, pads and panty liners generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, and they all contain plastic – in fact, pads are around 90 percent plastic – which ends up in landfill or, even worse, in seas and rivers.” Not only that, but non-organic sanitary products are made from cotton that's been sprayed with chemical pesticides, which in turn wreaks havoc on biodiversity and can give cotton workers potentially lethal pesticide poisoning.

In an ideal world, people who have periods would be allowed to take time off work / school to go to special period spas where they can free bleed, watch Broad City re-runs and eat painkillers. But we live under capitalism baby, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. However the planet is still very much dying, so if you want to take things into your own hands, here is a simple guide to having the most eco-friendly period possible, while also hopefully saving some money in the process.

SO YOU WANT TO GIVE UP TAMPONS / PADS? USE A MENSTRUAL CUP!

moon cup menstrual eco-friendly period sustainable guide
Press pic courtesy of Mooncup PR

As mentioned earlier, conventional tampons and pads aren't the best for the environment. They take around 500 to 800 years to decompose. To put that into perspective, if Anne Boleyn used tampons, they would still be floating about in the ocean right now.

The most well-known alternative to these little fish killers are menstrual cups, reusable funnels made from medical-grade silicone that you fold up and insert into your vagina. The Mooncup's become one of the most well-known brands in the UK, but you can opt for any number of ~girly~-sounding cups, from Selenacups, Lily Cups and DivaCups to the more functionally named OrganiCup. We’ve already published an extensive guide to the pros and cons of menstrual cups, but to sum up: they’re a lot easier to use than they initially sound, and they aren’t nearly as environmentally harmful as other products. Plus, you get to carry a little chalice of blood around in your body, which is the witchiest shit I ever heard.

Natasha Piette-Basheer, environmenstrual campaign manager at Women’s Environmental Network, agrees the menstrual cup has many benefits: “Depending on which brand, it can be used for up to ten years, as opposed to using hundreds of disposables. You also don't have to change it often. You can use it for up to 12 hours, because it can hold quite a lot of blood.” Natasha also points out that they're cost-effective. “They're anywhere from £10 to £30. When you think about how much you’re saving over your lifetime [in comparison to monthly disposable products], it's a lot.”

If you want to get yourself a moon cup, but you're not sure where to start, Natasha recommends brands like The Cup Effect and OrganiCup.

SO YOU’RE NOT INTO MOON CUPS EITHER? USE SOMETHING ELSE!

period pants thong sustainable eco-friendly guide environmental
Press pic courtesy of THINX

If the idea of inserting a silicon blood funnel up your vagina doesn't feel hugely appealing, there are other options too. When somebody told me there was such a thing as period pants, I was like... what? So all this time I've been walking around with tubes of plastic in my literal vagina when I could have just been wearing... pants?

“Period pants are great,” agrees Natasha. “They’re a newer invention, with a few brands in the UK like WUKA, THINX and Modi Body. It’s like you’re wearing any other pair of underwear, except they can hold up to four tampons-worth of blood. In their material makeup they have moisture-retaining fabric, so that you don’t feel the wetness.” Like the moon cup, Natasha adds, you can wear period pants again and again. “Once you’re done using it, you rinse it in the sink or shower, which disperses the blood. Then you just throw it in the wash with your other clothes.”

That said, if the idea of wearing pants alone doesn't feel right... you can wear a period thong! Or you can try reusable pads which do the same thing. “They're similar to period pants,” says Natasha. “But they've got wings to clip around your underwear, like regular pads. They're usually made from really absorbable material, whether cotton or bamboo. And depending on which brand, they can last for up to five or six years.”

Period pads are available widely, with brands like Bloom & Nora, Earthwise Girls and Honour Your Flow all selling a variety of options.

SO YOU DON’T WANT TO USE ANYTHING REUSABLE? GO ORGANIC AND PLASTIC-FREE!

Natracare sustainable eco friendly period pad tampon
Image via author

Having an eco-friendly period doesn't necessarily mean you have to use the same product over and over again. There are some more environmentally sustainable disposable tampons and pads out there, if that feels more right for you. “There's TOTM, which are actually being stocked in Tesco for example, and they're plastic-free and organic,” Natasha tells me. “There's also tried and tested brands like Natracare which can be composted, if people want to take it to that level and have those facilities. There's also OHNE and Hey Girls.” In other words, nothing really has to change other than switching to one brand instead of another. Easy!

SO YOU'RE OVER THE WHOLE THING? FREE BLEED!

Literally same babe. This whole thing is long, and involves a lot of admin. Wouldn't it be better to just bleed freely when you're bleeding? If you're worried about blood getting everywhere, then maybe the world should be more period-friendly, rather than you yourself. Last year, writer Aurora Tejeida tried free bleeding (then wrote about it), and according to her it wasn't a total disaster. While she said she might still wear a tampon during one of her heavier flow days, the rest of the time it was fine, meaning she's now cut her tampon use by almost two-thirds. So while this might sound messy and extreme on first glance, it's actually not such a big deal. Just bleed.

ANYTHING ELSE?

To have a more eco-friendly period in general, you don't have to stick to one of these products and treat it like a strict and limiting regime. You can mix and match, do what feels right for you in the moment and just generally be mindful of what you're sticking in your pants. “We would say avoiding products that are lubricated and / or fragrant, because they can be polluting in terms of the synthetic chemicals,” says Natasha. “If it says 'smells fresh like cherry blossom!' that's probably something to avoid! And even if you want to mix and match your products, maybe you can wear reusable products at nighttime, or at home, that still makes a difference.”

She also adds that flushing disposable products down the loo is a no-no. “Almost 50 percent of women in Britain still flush disposable products, which is something the water companies have brought to our attention,” she points out. “All the plastic ever invented is going to be around for centuries and centuries. So if people can make choices to use more eco-friendly options... it would really reduce the environmental damage, especially considering there are so many of us menstruators.”

You can find out more about what the Women's Environmental Network does on their website, including their plans for an 'Environmenstrual Week of Action' running from the 12th of October to the 19th of October. There are also a bunch of discount codes on their website for reusable and organic, plastic-free products, if you want to get started.

@daisythejones

Images for collage used: Tampon removed applicator via; Baby pink menstrual cup and hands via; Bright pink menstrual cup and hands via; Reusable sanitary pads via; Tampon with plastic applicator via; Pantyliner via.