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Let's talk about menstruation...

November 28, 2016

Bleeding is as much a part of life for women as breathing, yet for all too many, the monthly period is still taboo. If we're not talking about it, we're not addressing the environmental impacts, of which there are many.

woman holding a hot water bottle to her stomach
Image: Fotolia/absolutimages

If we women menstruate on average between 350 and 450 times, - which is incidentally much higher than our prehistoric counterparts, who historians believe had just 50 periods in their shorter lifetimes - then it stands to reason that we're going to get through a huge number of female hygiene items. 

Image: Colourbox/Birgit Reitz-Hofmann

The tampon, which takes its name from the French word for plug, has been devised from various materials, such as wool, papyrus, paper and plants, for centuries. The modern version with applicator was invented in 1929, and though it didn't take off immediately, it has since become an integral part of life for women, who use some 11,000 of these little white bullets during their menstruating years. Besides cotton, conventional tampons contain rayon and synthetic fibres, which, if dumped in landfill, take hundreds of years to biodegrade. And then there's the cost. Although it varies from country to country, depending on tax rates, they are never cheap.

Menstruation cup
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

If you are a tampon user looking for an alternative that is better for your pocket, your body and of course, the environment, you don't have to resort to methods of old. These days, menstrual cups, which like the modern tampon actually first emerged in the 1930s, are becoming increasingly popular. As the name suggests, and the picture shows, they are bell-shaped cups that catch rather than absorb the flow. Made of latex or silicone, and designed to be resusable for up to ten years, they are completely waste free. 

Packets of sanitary towels
Image: Imago

What about sanitary towels or pads? Their story is very similar to that of tampons. The mass-marketed varieties that line the shelves of drug stores and the pockets of their makers take their toll on the environment. Women who use pads can easily expect to get through an average of 20 per period, which works out at 240 a year. Multiply that by the 35 years of the cycle, and you have a whopping 8,400 soiled towels, which like their friends the tampons, contain synthetic materials that take centuries to break down in landfill. Now do the same maths for the hundreds of millions of women bleeding at any given time... You get the picture. 

Reusable pads
Image: www.earthwisegirls.co.uk

So what to do? Look back in time. Women have displayed a long history of creative thinking around their monthly bleed, and just as they fashioned tampons from whatever materials were at their disposal, so too they made pads. Historians believe prehistoric women used moss and animal skins to absorb the blood, while further down the line, there is ample suggestion that women simply allowed their flow to... flow. Freely, into their clothes. Then came the pad, which history tells us began as strips of old cloth or clothings. The modern-day re-usable version is a bit more user friendly, with many companies now offering sustainable sanitary napkins in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. 


Biodegradable pads
Image: NatraCare

Other alternatives are fully bio-degradable single-use pads and tampons, which are sold by a number of companies around the world. Unlike reusable products, however, they do require disposal. How this is done depends on the laws and facilities in any given country or indeed municipality. Putting them in landfill will not allow them to biodegrade as easily as they would if they were composted.