After a long day of lectures, library work and societies, I often find myself sitting in the arts building, looking out over Nassau street as the sun sets and processing the chaos of the day that just ensued. Naturally, as I’m sitting there, taking a moment for myself, I occasionally wander over to the bathrooms. One evening, at the beginning of February, I did just that. But as I was washing my hands, my eyes were immediately drawn to a bright pink infographic situated just behind the sink: “What is the Environmental Impact of Your Period?”
As someone who grew up in Washington DC and spent a number of weekends organising protests for reproductive rights, screaming outside of the Capitol Building, and fending off religious groups telling me that I was “going to hell,” my immediate reaction was an audible “What the f***?!”
“…as if women aren’t already torn apart for everything that we do, I was staring at a poster that made me feel guilty for not thinking more about how I approached those seven days of agony.”
Nearly every single cis woman knows the struggle of “that time of the month.” The cramps, the headaches, the bloating, the cravings, the mood swings, the random spells of nausea. And now, as if women aren’t already torn apart for everything that we do, I was staring at a poster that made me feel guilty for not thinking more about how I approached those seven days of agony.
Periods are stigmatised enough as it is. Women go out of their way to conceal the reality of what they are experiencing for fear of being judged. This poster just compounds that stigmatisation.
At first, I felt like a crappy person for having the reaction that I did. I truly believe that climate change is one of the most critical issues that our generation has to address and I try to make environmentally conscious decisions wherever I can. But examining the poster further I saw that other women were clearly as annoyed as I was. Comments such as “F*** off,” “Stop Shaming Women,” and my personal favourite: “Men wreck the world, start wars, and women need this S**t,” were plastered all over it. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who felt this poster had missed the mark.
When I looked into environmentalism as it pertains to period products some more, I began to understand why the environmentalists felt the need to disseminate this information. According to the European Commission, period products are the fifth most common form of trash found on Europe’s beaches. As well as this, 200,000 tons of plastic waste from pads and tampons wind up in UK landfills each year, according to research conducted by the London Assembly. Clearly, this is a significant issue.
However if one were to try to make a sustainable switch, they would likely find the alternatives to be unbearable. This poster suggests menstrual cups, reusable sanitary pads, and period proof underwear. Here’s why none of these “solutions” are truly viable.
Anyone who has ever used a menstrual cup knows that the very act of cleaning it out every couple of hours is time-consuming and frankly just unpleasant. Furthermore, the fear of the suction wearing off and being stuck in public with nowhere to turn is stress-inducing. Health-wise, these cups carry some risks as well. According to a 2020 report from the BBC, menstrual cups have the potential to cause “pelvic organ prolapse,” which is where “1 or more of the organs in the pelvis slip down from their normal position.” Plus, BBC News reports that most countries have not properly regulated menstrual cups, so the guarantee of proper sanitation that comes with a regular pad or tampon just isn’t there.
“Thus a reusable sanitary pad almost feels like a step back for women as far as convenience and practicality is concerned. Why would we revert to a period product that made the lives of our ancestors more difficult?”
As far as “reusable sanitary pads” are concerned, a version of these were used prior to the widespread launch of Kodex’s disposable “sanitary napkins” in 1921. Before the arrival of Kodex, women resorted to pieces of old sheets, spare scraps of fabric, and other make-shift, household items. These “homemade” sanitary pads were often then washed and reused, similar to the reusable sanitary pads suggested in the infographic. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, communications scholar Roseann Mandziuk explained that “given the discomfort and inconvenience of cloth pads, and growing expectations that women would work and attend school with their usual efficiency all month,” Kodex became a sensation soon after its release. Thus a reusable sanitary pad almost feels like a step back for women as far as convenience and practicality is concerned. Why would we revert to a period product that made the lives of our ancestors more difficult?
Lastly, period-proof underwear. For those who aren’t familiar, “period proof” underwear looks almost identical to regular underwear, but the supposed “moisture-wicking fabric” of its lining is able to absorb liquid. While, to some degree, these seem like a viable alternative to an ordinary pad, there are a number of things to consider. Firstly, for women with heavier periods, it is unlikely that one pair of underwear is going to do the trick. For some perspective, according to the University of British Columbia, an average maxi pad or tampon holds approximately two teaspoons or 10ml of blood. I, personally, would be nervous to trust a thin pair of underwear to do the same. Secondly, like menstrual cups there are potentially serious health risks to this option. In January 2023, period proof underwear brand Thinx settled a three-year class action lawsuit for $4 million as their underwear, after testing, contained significant levels of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or “forever chemicals.” These “chemicals,” according to the New York Times, are “practically indestructible” and have been classified as “potential carcinogens.” PFAS also have negative effects on hormonal function, including “accelerated ovarian ageing, period irregularities and ovarian disorders like polycystic ovarian syndrome.”
For pregnant women, exposure to PFAS causes increased risk of high blood pressure and heightened risk of low birth weight for babies. They also have the potential to harm reproductive capabilities and negatively affect early pregnancy. While I am sure that there are other brands of period-proof underwear available on the market that do not contain PFAS, the fact that a study from Mamavation found that 65% of 17 pairs of period underwear from 14 brands tested contained PFAS is enough to deter me from jumping on the bandwagon just yet.
Though disposable pads and tampons have a significant environmental impact and have become a money-making commodity for a number of men who don’t know the first thing about a period, people with periods can vouch for the fact that they simply make life easier. Infographics like this one, despite the tiny disclaimer at the bottom stating “menstrual management is a personal choice,” make women feel guilty for a natural function that they should not be ashamed of. While I, like so many feminists, believe that the future of period products should be more environmental, menstrual cups and period proof underwear are not the sole solution. Let’s bridge the gap between environmentalism and feminism to fight the patriarchy, make period products an industry that puts women before profit, and provide women with a truly viable environmental alternative that makes all of our lives easier when the dreaded time of the month comes around, without the guilt-tripping.