Why bother Greening your Period?

Why bother greening your period?

Yesterday’s Slate.com “Green Lantern” article questioning the environmental impact of reusable menstrual products begged for more than a brief comment in response. Is making the switch a mere drop in the bucket as far as waste goes, or part of a larger ripple effect?

Fence sitters and skeptics often ask us how green our products really are, along the lines of the so-called diaper “debate”. How green is washing your menstrual pads after all, once you factor in the raw materials, soap, water and energy (not to mention the hassle?) Some prominent green bloggers (including Grist.org’s Umbra Fisk) don’t see the impact of disposable menstrual products as being overly worth fretting about, a position quasi-supported by the Green Lantern herself, Nina Shen Rastogi.

Rastogi starts her post by referencing (from the book Flow) some compelling information about the amount of solid waste generated by disposable pads and tampons (62,415 lbs, or 0.5% of a woman’s gross lifetime landfill contribution) but quickly concludes that there are bigger fish to fry, suggesting that highlighting women’s monthly eco impact may constitute yet another source of shame for women, on top of that typically used to sell the products in the first place – why give women yet another guilt trip?

Rastogi is also quick to dismiss the environmental and health concerns that green feminine hygiene producers often raise about conventional products; namely what the long-term consequences of exposure to dioxin and the host of other chemicals, surfactants, plastics and perfumes that may or may not be present in pads and tampons might be, chlorine bleached or not.

While the US FDA and Health Canada claim that exposure to “trace” amounts of dioxin is safe, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks at the matter differently, asserting that there is no safe or acceptable amount, period.  The bottom line is that nobody actually knows – yet. Having just read this article about the effects of “trace” amounts of hormone disruptors such as phthalites and Bisphenol A, I can’t help wondering how long it might be before we see similar research exposing what many of us have long suspected about dioxin and other chemicals used in the manufacture of disposable pads and tampons.

Rastogi suggests if you are worried about your garbage output, you are better off buying bulk food and planning your grocery shopping to reduce food waste.

Hey, how about this crazy idea: why not do as much as you reasonably can? Why the cop-out on greening your period?

I will infer from Rastogi’s advice, then, that it’s not worth wondering what the impact of 73 million women (just talking North American menstruators here) reducing their solid waste impact by half a percent might be. Too bad, because I was actually thinking that along with other so-minor-they’re-not-worth-doing changes like ditching plastic water bottles, disposable plates and cups (yet another insignificant 0.5%, the article points out), plastic shopping bags, disposable diapers and other meaningless habits we and our customers are fond of, it could actually make a difference. Silly me!

For the record, our most recent internal evaluation in terms of waste reduction tells us that 1 Lunapad replaces 120 disposable pads or tampons, and that thanks to our customers having made the switch, 1 million disposables are now being diverted from landfills every month. I don’t know about you, but as minor as this figure may seem in the face of the estimated 20 billion disposable menstrual products making their way into landfills annually, I find it inspiring and cause for hope.

In an interesting coincidence, Rastogi imagines measuring the eco benefit of an OB tampon and a Lunapad: “If it were a choice between a Lunapad and a lightly packaged, nonapplicator tampon, though, it might be a close call.” Maybe so, but I guess that depends on what you’re taking into account and whether you believe that little things can make a worthwhile difference or not. It so happens that OB was my brand of choice in my final years as a tampon user, and having had years of experience with both products, their comparison brings up some of the points missing from the article. Here’s a short list of what I don’t miss about OB tampons: monthly bladder infections that would arrive about 24 hours following the onset of my period, the painful, dried-out feeling of removing a tampon on the latter days of my cycle, and rushing to the drugstore every month to shell out money that could otherwise have gone to feeding myself, charity or having a good time.

I will be the first to admit to having a commercial interest in the question Rastogi raises, which brings up another reason that I feel products like Lunapads deserve more support from the media, and not just for environmental reasons. The years we have spent building Lunapads have brought us the gift of meeting many of our peers in the alternative menstrual, diapering and related worlds, and a group of more sincere, hardworking, committed environmentalists would be hard to come by. They are leaders in progressive business practices extending to social mission work, human rights and global philanthropy. Reducing their work to a simplistic evaluation of this nature is to further sell short the power of entrepreneurialism for social change, but presumably since these types of green microbusinesses probably constitute less than half a percent of global trade, that’s not worth supporting either.

Choosing reusable menstrual products may not be solving all the environment’s ills, but why discourage those who might be interested in giving them a try or sell short the efforts of those who find it meaningful to produce them?

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  • Shona

    I know I have saved lots of money switching to the Diva Cup and Lunapads.

    I too used OB tampons towards the end of my use of disposable products. My final straw after all the dryness and annoyance of carrying all these things around with me was the fact I found a partially black one in the box. I got a moldy one.

    I have never gone back since. My life has been easier and better because of it.

    The other author I think has failed to take into account of the manufacturing of these products over us having to wash our Lunapads. I soak them then throw them in the regular laundry load. I do not believe I am adding to any extra steps/waste for this process

  • Excellent article. I <3 my lunapads and am SO thankful not to be saving money on the box of tampons I would buy every month!

  • Just a thought and question: for those who can’t go “all the way” and go reusable, does using organic disposable helps at all?
    (I’m not asking for myself, obviously 😉 )

  • Marie: yes, choosing organic cotton disposables is definitely better than conventional chlorine bleached, rayon based etc. products for both your body and the earth.

    I can’t help but think that these journalists ‘cop out’ by saying “it’s a wash/don’t fret your pretty little head” because it helps get them off the hook for making the change themselves. Of course there are dozens of ways to reduce our garbage and save $ (buy in bulk! why didn’t I think of that?) and that switching to reusable menstrual products is a very personal choice and not for everyone, but from an environmental perspective to conclude ‘it is not worth it’ when someone has asked this specific question is disrespectful to our planet.

  • Kasha

    As far as articles go I didn’t think their’s was the worst, and they had some points – but I think they are seriously simplifying the issue.

    Manufacturing; trees (I believe only 30% of wood is used), non-organic cotton, various chemical treatments, CO2 emissions as a result of those treatments, then waste; 12,000 tampons, pads applicators, etc. from all the women who use such products, and the wonderfully smart people who flush such products. Issues such as dioxin – it’s no longer an issue in that they don’t use chlorine gas bleaching, but such history shows total disregard for environmental and women’s health so it is still an issue in that they may well still be using very harmful ingredients.

    If we can stress about plastic bags, then we can stress about disposable menstrual products!!

    I didn’t get a menstrual cup or try cloth pads for environmental reasons (despite the fact I AM an environmentalist – a WEN member I might add!), but those environmental concerns are still issues to consider not pass off as a drop in the ocean.

  • Thanks so much for this article. I’m a devoted Diva Cup and Lunapad user, for the past year and I would never go back. I can’t imagine how comparing disposals to reusables can be considered a “wash.” Like Shona, I throw mine into my regular laundry loads.

    I LOVE not having to throw pads or tampons away each month, and I have saved SO MUCH MONEY by using these products. So thank you, Lunapads, for all your amazing products, for helping women change the way they think about their periods, and for giving us a green alternative to pads and tampons!

  • Rachel

    I read both her article about pads and cloth diapering and yes, of course it is more green to use reusable menstrual products and cloth diapers! Even if it has a tiny impact, the more of us who use them the bigger it will be!

    Also, I actually do not mind getting my period now because I know I will not be itchy, uncomfortable and get a rash. The cloth just feels so much better and I don’t have to worry what the chemicals in the disposables could be doing to me in the long run.

    Yeah for reusable menstrual products! 🙂

  • Molly

    This issue, about whether it really matters if we use “green” products for our menstrual cycles, is really larger than the impact of the monthly pads and tampons themselves. As another commented, plastic bags and bottles, excess packaging, and many other things all contribute to our waste. No, individually, we cannot make a large reduction in the overall amount of waste sent to the landfill, incinerator, etc., but every bit helps. Many of us are in denial about our true impact, remaining passive, saying that changing one aspect doesn’t make that much of a difference. But what is it hurting to try?
    Are we so ashamed of ourselves and our bodies that we don’t want to think about washing reusable (in the regular laundry load) products with our menses on them? How far have we strayed that we hate one of the very essences that make us female, that we would rather throw (or worse, flush) something completely natural away than do something better for the environment, that we would rather do what’s easiest for us instead of caring for our earth and our bodies?

    I have been using reusable pads for more than six years, and I will never go back. If I were dating someone who wasn’t “hip to [my] presoaking a used fabric pad,” I would tell him that it is my choice to, and because I honor my body and my earth, he’d best pipe down.

    Regarding Rastogi’s point of adding to women’s shame, it’s more of a problem with the system. No, we shouldn’t add to her shame by adding the environmental factor; we should change her concept of her cycle. We feel shame and isolated because of our periods because we are taught to. By making this switch, we ought to embrace our femininity with all its imperfections, as we should the earth.

  • Nina

    Hi Madeleine,

    Thanks for posting on the Slate piece, and for responding here!

    I don’t think the takeaway from my piece should be, “Why bother?” (If it were, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of discussing the alternatives!) But I do think accurate information is crucial when it comes to environmental decision-making. I don’t dismiss the waste concern. In my article, I actually compare feminine care products to plastic cups and plates as an argument for the significance of femcare products in our waste stream. (We worry so much about plastic cups and plates—why shouldn’t we worry as much about pads and tampons?) But it’s also true that pads and tampons make up a small fraction of a woman’s landfill load.

    Yes, every little bit helps. But some actions have more impact than others, and people have finite time, energy, and resources. I don’t think it’s a cop-out to admit that. If switching to a reusable femcare product were a simple transition for every woman, I’d be totally gung-ho about them. But it’s not always an easy switch—I think we can say that fairly? So for women who are considering making the change, I think it’s appropriate to ask what, precisely, the impacts of that change would be.

  • Ayah

    I think one of the biggest environmental impacts my use of cloth pads has had is in the ripple effect. I’m nowhere near perfectly green, but choosing menstrual cloth has led me to start making other greener choices.

    As an example, one of the reasons I am choosing to use cloth diapers now that I have a baby on the way is that I love my cloth pads and would hate to trade soft mama cloth for disposables. I figure, why shouldn’t I give my baby the same level of comfort? In addition, since I already have a wash routine for my mama cloth, the step of incorporating a wash routine for diapers seems that much more manageable. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t switched to cloth pads, I would probably be happily stocking up on sposies right now, maybe looking at parents who use cloth and saying, “That’s great, but it’s really not for me.”

    I get that switching to reusable products isn’t always easy. But I think that, for women who are on the fence, it’s worth showing them that the switch can be easier than they might think. 🙂

  • In response to Nina, if you acknowledge that disposable products create some sort of environmental impact, then why ask what the impact of a woman’s change to reusables is? Suffice to say it will make an impact. Whether it is decreasing .5% of her total waste or otherwise. The article comes across as “if you are considering alternatives to disposable feminine products, don’t sweat it. You don’t need to.” Instead why not *first* state their benefits, and end with “if they are not for you, don’t worry, and don’t feel guilty if you cannot make the switch”. Have you personally given them a try?

  • Amy

    I agree with Ayah that there is an empowerment that comes from taking one step — and something like reusable menstrual products is a very good one because it is so rewarding (in comfort, economics, and convenience) for such a small effort. Having done this, you begin to realize what else you can do simply by reorganizing your life, not by any great sacrifice.

    I am a great fan of Nina’s column, but I agree that this particular article came across as discouraging. Probably this was not what she intended — it’s interesting to consider why we have this default idea that trashbins full of rotting disposable products are less disgusting than cloth pads soaking in clean water. There was a really fraught feeling to the scene in Nina’s article with the hypothetical boyfriend offended by the soaking jar on the counter. And it’s unrealistic — you don’t have to use a glass jar. You don’t have to put it on the counter. Why tap into latent insecurities about how male partners view menstruation?

  • Meg

    Even if a woman is unconcerned about the environmental impact of all things manufactured for using once and throwing away, that are made of bleached paper and plastic, and is unconcerned about the effects such products may have on her immediate health, it’s hard to argue the economics involved with stopping buying endless rounds of these products.
    Every time the price of petroleum increases, the price of all things plastic also increases, and I was looking at the price of the menstrual products, and thinking how much one spends in a year on the throw-aways, and how that money might be enjoyed some other way.

    Lunapads cost more than the throwaways, at least at first, but over time pay for themselves.

    Simply tearing up old cotton terry cloth and folding it a certain way, and using that, is cheapest of all and works perfectly well, but women who have a cultural aversion to that might not be able to overcome it to that extent, but could overcome the cultural attachment to landfill plastic pads, if they have an attractively packaged and marketed cloth alternative that looks to them like the landfill pads they are used to.

    But if the manufacturers have their say, humans will be in one form of landfill diaper or another from the cradle to the grave, starting with disposable diapers, continuing those til age 3 or later, then continuing through early childhood with pullups, then bedwetting underpants through to the teens, then disposable menstrual products, until they “need” urinary incontinence disposables through end of life (instead of Kegels, of course).
    This plan makes a few very rich, and makes everyone else a little poorer, in the short term, completely ignoring that everyone loses in the long term, and it could all be stopped if people would stop allowing themselves to be lulled into first accepting, and then being conditioned to think they need, these products.

    Case in point: the age of potty training in our culture getting later and later, as pushed by the makers of disposable diapers first, and then later prolonged diapering products like pullups. Two generations ago a child still in diapers at 3 would have been because of a serious physical or psychological problem, and now many parents think it would harm their kids to train them earlier. Parenting books written by Johnson and Johnson heartily agree, of course.

    Markets are created and people are persuaded first of the acceptability, then eventually of the necessity, for those products which were clearly not needed before they were invented.

    That’s why greening your period is important. It’s a point of awakening from a deep cultural slumber.

  • Bera

    “Choosing reusable menstrual products may not be solving all the environment’s ills, but why discourage those who might be interested in giving them a try or sell short the efforts of those who find it meaningful to produce them?”

    And THAT is essentially the question I ask regarding any greening and those who are, for some reason, against it.

  • katieb

    Actually, copping out by so-called Greenies…doesn’t surprise me. I have found that there are a LOT of Green ‘Advocates’ out there who are willing to do SOME changes….but not if they are let’s say, ‘different’, ‘hard’ or ‘inconvenient’. I know changing to reusable menstrual products is quite a paradigm shift for the Throw-Away Generation (I fit in here) but the impact is HUGE!!! This can’t be said loud enough—for our health AND the environment! It’s too bad the loudest voices, it seems, in the Green Movement are also the biggest hypocrites in some areas. Just think about an article about Cloth TP in one of these magazines or blogs—eeeewww! I proudly wear my T-shirt that says “Every time you wipe your butt, a Tree DIES!”. Why not use re-usable in EVERY area we can 🙂

  • katieb

    Oh—and a quick note about Rastogi’s comment about OB tampons. We had a sewer back up a few years ago and had the plumber out to snake the sewer pipe. My husband had gone out to consult with the plumber when he had ‘resolved’ the issue and I had come outside to ask what was going on—thinking it was a tree root or something. I didn’t pick up on why my husband was giving me such a funny look—and upon my insistent inquiring as to WHY—the plumber blurted out–“Well—someone flushing TAMPAX clogged your pipes. But I’ve never seen ones with Green strings!” He then showed me the HUGE pile of months of backed up OB tampons—MY tampons—that were piled in the back alley street near the sewer outlet. The mess I saw from just MY tampons was mortifying and amazing—-and multiply that by millions. Yep—OB have NO impact on the environment……………not! (and my husband laughed for WEEKS about that one!)

  • michelle

    I don’t understand linking the environmental impact of washing menstrual pads to the environmental impact of washing cloth diapers. The average baby uses between 8 and 12 diapers a day (plus doublers, liners, covers, etc), and two to three diapers are about one period’s worth of reusable pads in terms of the amount of cloth being washed. That means that when we wash a year’s worth of pads, it’s equivalent to washing three to four days’ worth of diapers. Most women I know (myself included) just throw them in with the rest of the wash; how much of an impact is that, really?

  • sarah miller

    Good on you for showing that what we do does matter, and that in fact taking responsibility for our menstrual cycle is not about guilt, rather it is about celebrating our life giving power that menstrual blood is part of. WE want women to celebrate their menstrual cycles, and part of that is overcoming any shame that is culturally created. Going green and re-using cloth pads, or menstrual cups is a way of saying Heh, I care about my body, and the body of this earth. I care about women, and the right to feel special for being a woman. I reject the cultural assumptions that menstruation is a pain/ shame. Instead I celebrate the cycles of women, the time of ovulation and the time of bleeding. I celebrate my cycles and the cycles of this blessed earth. Sarah