Menstrual Cups and Sustainable Periods

Period equity and sustainability are more interconnected than we often realize. Sometimes, when we think about more traditional period products like disposable tampons, pads, wipes, etc., we don’t consider the toll they take on our environment. According to a special investigation on waste conducted by National Geographic, 5.8 billion tampons were bought in the United States in 2018. On average, a single menstruator will use 5,000-15,000 tampons in a lifetime. Unsurprisingly, the use of these disposable products generates a lot of landfill waste. But wait… is questioning the sustainability of menstrual products inherently a very “privileged” thing to do? Why worry about using more sustainable products when, as reported by The World Bank, at least 500 million women and girls across the global lack adequate access to proper sanitation facilities or menstrual products of any kind? Does sustainability just make period equity more complicated? Well, not necessarily. As something that plays a critical role in a variety of social issues, sustainability can add much-needed nuance to period equity discussions and may help to break down the stigma that surrounds menstruation. In fact, many sustainable products are more cost-effective and accessible than the traditional disposable ones. One excellent example of a sustainable period product that may be actually healthier to use than its disposable counterparts is a menstrual cup. 

Menstrual cups are small, flexible, and are typically made of silicone or latex rubber. You apply a menstrual cup in a way that is similar to inserting a tampon without an applicator. (Here is a more in-depth guide on menstrual cup usage and maintenance.)  Beyond being sustainable, here are some other important things to bear in mind when considering menstrual cups: 

  • More cost-effective – Reusable cups typically cost $30– $40 and can last 6 months –10 years. Across time, that initial cost disperses out to be significantly less expensive than the $100–$150 per year spent on pads and tampons by the average menstruator in the United States. These metrics dispel the notion that more sustainable products are inherently more expensive.  
  • Safer– Since menstrual cups collect blood instead of absorbing it, the risk of experiencing toxic shock syndrome, a condition typically associated with leaving in a tampon for too long, is greatly diminished. 
  • Lasts longer per use– Most menstrual cups can hold 1 ounce of liquid, which is twice as much as the average tampon or pad. By extension, menstrual cups can be used for up to 12 hours, making them an option for overnight leak protection. 

Admittedly, menstrual cups do demand a bit of an adjustment period. Finding the right size to seal in your flow can require a series of trial and error, which often translates to handling some leaks and other inconveniences. Sometimes reusable cups may cause allergic reactions for people with certain material sensitivities. However, once the right fit is found, menstrual cups can be a very sustainable approach to managing your period. Reusable pads and period-absorbing underwear are also viable options. 

So, why would moving toward more sustainable menstrual products be helpful in furthering period equity? We must continue to be cognizant of the nuanced components of this discussion. We have to be intentional in balancing environmental concerns with meeting the immediate needs of women across the world effectively. We hope that this environmental awareness continues to be a very important thread in the development of women's health and wellness, as menstruation conversations are rightfully destigmatized.


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