Today, we're GOING THERE. I'm a pretty private person, so it's taken me awhile to get up the courage to go there, here. But, I feel more and more these days that we need to get comfortable with talking about all aspects of being a woman, including the reproductive functions that we typically ignore in public discourse. Hello, institutionalized misogyny. So, I'm setting aside my shyness today in case a discussion of zero waste periods might prove helpful, reassuring, or interesting to you. Here we go!
Of course, there's no one solution fits all for sustainable period planning, just as there's no one solution fits all for non-sustainable period planning. So, first up, I'm sharing what I and many others consider the gold standard of zero waste periods, if you can hack it - the menstrual cup. But, I also have a few other options listed at the bottom of this post, if menstrual cups just aren't for you. Let's do this, ladies. (Men are of course welcome to read along, too).
You may already know the reasons why switching to a menstrual cup might make sense: it's completely reusable, which keeps pads and tampons out of the production stream and the landfill (an estimated 15,000 are used per woman between her first and last periods). It decreases the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome and appears to be healthier for the balance of vaginal flora. Plus, menstrual cups can last for years and years (up to 10!), meaning that after the up-front cost of $25 - $40, they can save you so much money and time at the drugstore down the road. For me, using the cup helps me feel like my period is just another part of the month, rather than a medical event necessitating the constant sourcing of an influx of plastic-wrapped supplies. I like that, a lot.
There are reasons not to use it too, of course - some women can't use them comfortably or have a medical issue that precludes it, and they aren't always compatible with IUDs, so ask your doctor first if that's an issue. A few months back, my friend Ashlee passed along this hilarious Buzzfeed article which details some of the woes of using a menstrual cup, and my friends and I spent a happy few moments laughing and swapping our favorites (mine is #20) on our text thread. But, overall, my experience and many women's experiences have been so, so positive - maybe worth a try, yes?
Tips for newbies (& some for oldbies):
-Menstrual cups are often called Diva Cups, like we tend to say "Kleenex" instead of "tissues." But, the Diva Cup is just one brand among many, and each brand offers slightly different sizes and shapes. Many women* (*anecdotal evidence not backed by actual evidence beyond myself and my friend circle) may opt to try a second brand if the first one doesn't work out, finding some versions to be more comfortable than others. I settled on a Lunette Cup, which I love. (It's the brand most of my friends have settled on, too. You can snag one for yourself here). A few other brands out there: Keeper Cup, Mooncup, and the LENA. If you'd like to purchase yours locally, I've found that most Whole Foods stores sell the Diva Cup brand.
-Most brands come in two sizes and offer guidance on the box as to which size might be right for you, but if your first one doesn't work out, consider trying the other size. Is it too uncomfortable, even after giving yourself a couple of cycles to get the hang out things? You might need to size down. Feeling like you have to change it too often / it's leaking in between changes? A size up might do the trick.
-If you've found yourself with two menstrual cups via either of the above methods (choosing a different brand or re-sizing), consider keeping the spare somewhere that it might come in handy in pinch - the office, your locker at the gym, your car, your partner's house, downstairs if you're too lazy to walk upstairs, wherever.
-Every cup has a little stem at the bottom, which helps you remove it. You can trim the stem to be shorter if it's uncomfortable, but I'd suggest not doing so until you've given it a good couple of wears and gotten the hang of inserting / removing it. You might find that it ends up being comfortable as is and wish you hadn't trimmed it. (Read: I wish I hadn't trimmed it).
-For the final day or two of your period, consider finding an alternative to a menstrual cup, like reusable pads or period underwear. Because gravity pulls them down when they're heavier, menstrual cups are easier to remove when they're full than when they're not, so on lighter days you might find that they're harder to use and not worth the trouble. I've linked to a few additional options in the second half of this post.
-Find some soap and a container to carry along with you. It's best to use a gentle, non-toxic, unscented, non-castile soap to wash your cup. Finding something that meets those criteria in a public restroom is pretty rare, so when I leave home, I carry my own soap with me in a little metal container (I use this one). The container doesn't hold a regular-sized bar of soap (and I don't want to carry a full bar with me everywhere, anyway), so I cut a bar into smaller pieces and take a piece with me instead. Another excellent thing about this trick: the soap and container combo is easy to pop in my suitcase for vacations, so that I can avoid those wrapped bars of soap at hotels. Nothing quite so satisfying as a good dual purpose item.
-Once you've transitioned away from tampons or pads, consider giving your extras away. Stock the bathroom at work or at school, give them to your girlfriends, or ask if a local homeless or domestic violence shelter will accept them. Even so, you might want a few extras around, just in case. Maybe you'll flying cross-country and reluctant to wrestle with your cup in a tiny, gross airplane bathroom (ugh, been there). Maybe you'll be traveling to an area without clean water and won't feel comfortable washing it. Maybe you'll accidentally leave your menstrual cup elsewhere in anticipation of your period and will be glad when you have a few extra tampons knocking around at home or at work. What I'm saying is, you never know, and you can always get rid of them later. Or, you can do what I haven't done yet and opt for reusable pads or period underwear (see below!) as your back-up methods instead.
Other options for a zero waste-ish period:
-Reusable pads. Reusable pads are cloth versions of the plastic drugstore standard - they typically snap onto or around your regular underwear and can be washed and reused indefinitely. You can purchase a version at the online zero waste store Tiny Yellow Bungalow, find a purveyor on Etsy (there are many!), consider making your own if you sew, or I think most Whole Foods stores sell them, too.
-Period underwear. Never owned 'em, can't speak to 'em, but I do think they sound useful and simple. Here's a little article that speaks to them more and offers a few recommendations. (And here's something to keep in mind if you're considering the brand Thinx).
-Applicator-free tampons. If you're loathe to quit the tampon, you could consider switching to one without an applicator. This cuts down on packaging waste (they're tiny, so more fit in a box) and the waste from applicators, which are typically plastic.
One last note: I would never recommend that you do anything other than what makes your period the healthiest and happiest it can be for you - it's such a personal thing! - so take these tips with a grain of period blood (nice image, right?), and keep doing you if making a change isn't feasible.
And, if your experience has been different or you have something to add, would you share in the comments so that we can all learn some other tricks / options / alternatives? Feel free to list your name as "anonymous" or a pseudonym! Thanks for reading, friends - sister on.
Pictured is a brand-new Lunette Cup destined for Zero Waste Chicago tabling events and zero waste workshops.