Writing by India Ferguson, Edited by Maria Gonzales. Photo (Left) by Oscar Valdez. Photos within text by India Ferfuson, scanned film, subjects: unknown.
During my time as a Sustainability major, my class discussions about climate change and global warming often involved an analysis of the waste in landfills, agricultural pollution, the consumption of meat, and municipal sewage placement.
After further examining the products that fill our landfills and oceans, I realized there was an important item that continues to degrade our environment but was not mentioned in any of my lectures or class discussions: Disposable menstrual products.
The reason why most environmentalists aren’t talking about the destructive aftermath of disposable menstrual products is because talking about menstruation has become a social taboo that is deeply embedded in our society. Even for those who have their periods, the underlying notion is to keep it to yourself because no one wants to hear about it. For many people who have their periods, it’s become a point of embarrassment and shame and for those who don’t have it, most don’t even want to hear the word. While some may debate whether the social stigma of menstruation is harmful, what is undeniably harmful is how our lack of conversation about menstruation has far fetching consequences that continue to affect our lives right under our noses. This is not the fault of the women but rather the companies that profit off of their customers’ need for menstrual products. By not analyzing the ways in which menstrual hygiene companies are affecting our environment and how consumer menstrual product waste is handled, we are continuing to add onto the problem rather than invest in a solution.
According to the reproductive education company Lunette, in the United States there are 84.7 million women aged 15 to 24 who use an average of 22 menstrual products per cycle. 22 menstrual products may not seem like a great deal, but 22 products per person equates to 286 products per year, which leaves a total of 24.2 billion products that are thrown into landfills per year. To put that in perspective, imagine that 3 menstrual products were handed to all 7 billion people on this planet and at the end of year each person threw the products into a pile.
“And add 3 billion more on top of that, and that’s the amount discarded every single year.”
The large amount of plastics and electronics that are misplaced in landfills further extends the decomposing process of menstrual products which can take nearly a thousand years to break down completely. Due to the lack of oxygen in landfills, as bacteria decomposes the landfill waste it produces a potent greenhouse gas called methane which seeps into our groundwater system and escapes directly into the atmosphere. Methane is responsible for 14% of climate change and is mainly released by agriculture and landfill waste. It leaks from the landfill onto the vegetation layer and seeps into the underground water table which is where we receive our household water. In addition, an enormous amount of energy and nonrenewable resources are used in order to create these products that end up being tossed away every four hours by the millions, which create harmful carbon emissions during every stage during production.
However, the environmental issue of menstrual waste reaches far beyond the landfills on U.S soil. In rural areas of India, women who do not have access to menstrual products are left with no other options but to use old wash rags from their previous cycles in order to collect their menstrual blood. This often leads to bacterial infections and ailments that affect millions worldwide. Using blood stained rags as a way to collect menstrual fluid is a common problem for many financially unstable families in countries that lack access to proper sanitation and clean water.
Considering these items are being throwing away by the millions every minute, it’s simply unsustainable to continue manufacturing and using these products. To combat the environmental aftermath of menstrual waste, many people are ditching disposable menstrual products and switching to more sustainable alternatives. Sex educators, engineers, product designers and scientists across the globe are putting their minds together to make menstruation safer for people and the environment. There are many sustainable alternatives to disposables such as cloth pads, biodegradable tampons, sea sponges, but my weapon of choice is the reusable menstrual cup.
Many women have completed ditched their disposables and switched to menstrual cups simply because they are more cost effective, comfortable, odor-free, provide 12 hours of protection, and my favorite trait: completely leak proof. Even though the menstrual cup has become popular amongst women worldwide in the last 5 years, menstrual cups were actually created in the early 20th century but were a flop amongst consumers and were eventually bombarded by disposables which came to the market in 1896. Menstrual cups today are made of a flexible high grade silicone that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Due to its safe silicone alone, it beats tampons by a mile. Here’s how it works: the cup is folded and placed in the vagina where it is able to suction onto the cervix and collect menstrual fluid rather than absorb it which keeps the walls of the vagina from drying out. After usage, the cup is able to be washed out with water, sanitized, and used again for an additional 12 hours without risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. The highest absorbency tampons typically absorb 0.3 ounces of fluid compared to the average menstrual cup which holds typically 1 full ounce. Next to holding more fluid, due to its flexible silicone menstrual cups are more comfortable and can be worn overnight, while playing sports, in water without the hassle of leaking through and staining clothing. Menstrual cups not only completely eliminate menstrual product waste but also help start a long needed about menstruation.
Typically, when we talk about menstruation we only talk about it in the context of women’s bodies, which doesn’t leave space for how menstruation intersects with other parts of society. As scientists, architects and designers begin to embrace the idea of climate change and build the way towards a more sustainable future, our lack of conversation about menstruation creates a dichotomy where menstruation is viewed only as a reproductive issue that concerns only women. I am a strong believer that every woman should know their options when it comes to their menstruation cycle, and by choosing reusable products we are creating a safe space for future women and the environment.