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 about 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 micro-businesses 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?