Is a Zero Waste Period possible? Here’s What To Know And Products to Own

So many of us today (well, half of the population…) are reliant on disposable traditional products for our periods—those that have a substantial environmental impact and generate tons of plastic waste. From disposable pads to tampon applicators, there is seemingly no lack of waste generated by periods!

And if you’re just starting on your zero waste journey, then we’re sure zero waste periods have crossed your mind plenty. After all, it isn’t exactly low waste to be throwing out packs of pads each month!

The good news is that zero waste period products are becoming more and more commonplace. Where a decade ago you would be hard-pressed to find different options, there are now a variety of choices from period panties to menstrual discs. Let’s explore some of these below.

Tampons, Pads, And Waste Generation

Conventional sanitary products such as tampons and pads are commonly made from plastic. From linings and tampon applicators to packaging, these seemingly innocent objects are actually quite terrible for the environment.

The average woman disposes of around 11,000 menstrual products during the course of her life. [1]  Most of them end up in landfills or toilets, where they may eventually end up in our sewer systems or oceans.

In the United States alone, people bought close to 6 million tampons in 2018. Now, imagine that number compounded over the years! [2]

These conventional products are neither recyclable nor biodegradable, posing serious environmental issues. And in a world wracked by global warming and climate change, we don’t really need to add period waste to our growing list of problems—and yet it is somehow there.

Moreover, because they are labeled as medical waste, these products are not tracked. Therefore, the lack of precise numbers impedes the complete assessment of the scope of the issue, indicating that most numbers we have are actually somewhat understated.

Think about it: women typically have a few decades of fertile years (around 13-51), which means that they will have to use menstrual products about 450 times in their lives—quite a lot of time to accumulate a lot of period-related waste.

This is where your zero waste period comes in.

Menstrual cup
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Is A Zero Waste Period Better?

Yes! By a long shot.

First, going zero waste with your period means you aren’t throwing away boxes of period products each month, thus reducing your consumption habits and lessening your carbon footprint.

Second, a zero waste period is cheaper in the long run. Although reusable products might still be a recurring purchase, the time tends to span years and not weeks. Because you can use reusables for longer, you are, in effect, saving money.

Lastly, going zero waste makes you less susceptible to harmful components that can make your periods worse. Many tampon and pad brands include some questionable materials in their products, which may negatively impact your health.

Zero Waste Period Graph
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How Can We Reach A Zero Waste Period?

Fortunately, there are plenty of different zero waste period products to satisfy various period preferences. And even though the waste generated from periods continues to increase, we actually have quite a lot of viable options that aren’t far removed from the period products most of us are used to.

When deciding which zero waste period product is right for you, the first thing you have to consider is your personal preferences. Different period products generally serve different needs, making it vital to choose one that suits you best.

Here are some of our suggestions for an eco-conscious and zero waste period:

1 – Menstrual Cup

If you’re reading this article, then chances are you’ve already heard of menstrual cups. These small bell-shaped devices are some of the most popular and well-loved zero waste period products available today.

And they’re popular for a reason! They are comfortable (once you’ve gotten used to it), reusable, and don’t contain any of the harmful chemicals typically present in disposable period products.

Made of medical-grade silicone, menstrual cups are meant to be inserted into the vagina and act as a leak-proof holder for blood. It sits below the cervix and creates a suction to prevent any period fluid from leaking out of the cup. If you’re having trouble picturing that, below is a comprehensive guide on what a menstrual cup is.

But menstrual cups will take some getting used to. It takes at least a few cycles for most people to get used to the insertion process, and the learning curve is quite steep. So while menstrual cups may be touted as the ideal zero waste period product, there are some things you need to consider.

The Pros

One of the best things about menstrual cups is that they come in countless variations. This means you can choose from different sizes, shapes, colors, and more! There are even collapsible options!

They also last quite a long time. Most menstrual cups will last you around 3-7 years, depending on the quality of the product and how well you maintain it. Remember to only buy cups made from medical-grade silicone and always follow manufacturer instructions for maintenance.

Another pro is that many women claim it helps reduce cramps during their menstruation. The most plausible reason is that the cup rim slightly rubs the vaginal walls and releases some of the pressure most women feel the first few days.

The Cons

As much as we’d like to talk about only good things, that simply isn’t possible.

For one, it can be more expensive upfront than disposable tampons or traditional pads. Price-wise, most cups will range between 15 and 35 USD, depending on the brand (we recommend this one). However, some cups could cost more than that.

Over its lifetime, the cup will clearly be the cheaper choice. However, not anyone has enough financial leeway to pay for them upfront. To add, it often takes at least a few tries for you to find the perfect cup, making the cost add up through trial and error.

Cups also aren’t ideal for those who aren’t comfortable with the insertion process, as is common with young teenagers. When it comes to such a sensitive area, it’s only reasonable for many young girls to be on the fence about using a cup.

How To Use Your Cup

Using the menstrual cup has a steep learning curve for the average woman. If you’ve grown up with pads and tampons your whole life, you’ll struggle a little bit with how to use these zero waste period cups.

menstrual cup with flowers by eco roots
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Here’s how to use your cup:

  • First things first, sterilize your cup before first using it and in between periods. Just make sure to follow manufacturer instructions (which typically involve soaking the cup in some hot water or even boiling it). Make sure that you have clean hands as well, and wash them properly every time you insert and remove the cup.
  • The trick for a smooth insertion is to fold it sufficiently and maintain it folded during insertion so that the cup can correctly ‘open up’ once in place. This is easier than it sounds. You can use different folds, and the one that suits you best will depend on your comfort level. A good place to start is with the C-fold or the 7-fold, as these typically result in the tiniest insertion points.
  • You may need to move your hips forward or elevate one of your legs for smooth insertion. There are also numerous ways you could go about this, so just choose the most comfortable one.
  • It will take a bit of time to find the right moves and angles. Similarly, it might take you two or three cycles to get used to the feeling your menstrual cup gives right after insertion. 
  • If it still feels uncomfortable, our tip is to move your hips from left to right, then lift your knees a few times. Once it is correctly positioned, you will no longer notice it. 

Placing the cup correctly is crucial in maximizing the use of your cup. If it doesn’t ‘open’ or ‘pop’ inside the vaginal canal, there’s going to be a high chance of some leakage happening throughout the day—something you want to avoid.

woman holding menstrual cup
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Here are some tips for removal:

  • Especially at the beginning of your period when your flow is at its heaviest, we recommend – by experience – to empty it directly when sitting on the toilet, as it might be tricky to move it around without spilling a bit of blood.
  • Once done, rinse your menstrual cup in the sink and reinsert it. If you are not at home and cannot easily access a sink, no worries.
  • Empty it and reinsert it directly. Rinsing is not mandatory each time.
  • Whenever you are removing your cup, make sure to squeeze the bottom a little bit. This will break the suction and allow for a smoother removal. This is especially important for those with IUDs as the cup could pull out the IUD if not removed correctly.
  • Lastly, make sure to not leave your cup in for extended periods of time to avoid the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. You might have heard of Toxic Shock Syndrome from tampons, but they also apply for menstrual cups, so just make sure to follow the prescribed period.

If you’re having doubts or are unsure whether cups are a great fit for you at this point, please do consult your doctor.

2 – Menstrual Discs

Menstrual discs are less prevalent in discussions about zero waste period products, but they’re actually pretty cool alternatives! They’re similar to cups in the way that you have to insert them into your vagina, and they hold the blood, but they also have plenty of differences.

For instance, a menstrual disc sits behind the cervix, not below it, and it also does not create any form of suction. Size-wise, discs, and cups are also pretty different. Discs often have wider rims and are inserted lengthwise into the vaginal canal. Meanwhile, cups are not necessarily folded this way.

The Pros

Like cups, menstrual discs are barely noticeable when placed properly. They can also be kept inside for up to 12 hours before they need to be removed, although you should allow for some variation based on your flow.

Menstrual discs can also be worn during intercourse. Unlike cups, they do not interfere and can be relied on for mess-free sexy times.

The Cons

Menstrual discs are messy during removal. They aren’t like cups that you can just tip over and reinsert, which is terribly inconvenient if you are in a public restroom.

Discs are also not the best for young teens or anybody who isn’t very familiar with their anatomy down there. Discs require a lot of fiddling around during insertion and removal, so it may not be the best for those who aren’t comfortable with the insertion and removal process.

3 – Cloth Pads or Reusable Pads

Another one you can add to your list of zero waste period products is, of course, reusable pads! These are perfect if you want to switch to zero waste options but are hesitant to move away from traditional period products like pads.

Although reusable pads have become more popular lately, they’ve actually been around for quite a long time! Your grandmothers probably used them before mass production of single-use period products was commonplace.

Most reusable pads are clipped onto your undies and work precisely like disposable products do, with one major exception: you don’t have to throw them out after each use.

Rather than dispose of them, reusable pads are meant to be washed and dried accordingly. If pads were your go-to menstrual product, then the reusable alternative is something you will like.

Note: When buying these pads, and if you are able, try to avoid conventional cotton products. Organic cotton will always be the superior choice in terms of quality and sustainability, and they are made without any harsh chemicals and generate less waste during production.

The Pros

Cloth pads are ideal eco friendly period products for young teens or for those who aren’t used to tampons. They have virtually no learning curve and are still comfortable despite being bulkier than conventional pads.

Reusable pads are also available in various styles and sizes that can accommodate a heavy flow or night wear. The abundance of options makes it suitable for those who might have heavy bleeding throughout their entire cycle.

The Cons

Perhaps one of the biggest cons about reusable pads is the cost. Buying them will require quite an initial investment, which is an option that is unfortunately not available for everyone. It isn’t that the cloth pads themselves are always expensive individually. But you also have to consider that you will be rotating between several pads at a time, thus costing you more upfront.

Another possible con is that cloth pads need to be washed after each use. While cleaning them of any menstrual fluid isn’t really that heavy of a task, it might be a hindrance to those who have plenty to do in a day.

There is also the added issue of drying as pads typically need direct sunlight to dry properly. If you live somewhere without access to direct sunlight or open hanging space, pads may not be for you.

4 – Period Underwear

Period undies are exactly what they sound like: underwear that you wear during your period! And before you think that it’s gross or unsanitary, period underwear are actually quite interesting innovations that work wonders for those looking for reusable menstrual products.

zero waste underwear from wellearthgoods
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The Pros

If you want something you can wear comfortably throughout the day without feeling anything bulky or disruptive, then period panties are the answer to your problem. This zero waste alternative remains comfortable throughout the day, and it just feels like wearing regular undies.

Lastly, it is one of our favorite options at Puratium because: A) it smells a lot less compared to conventional plastic sanitary pads and B) some brands have done a great job at providing classy alternatives. Check Sisters Republic (Europe) or Well Earth Goods (North America) for example.

The Cons

An issue with period underwear is that they aren’t the best if you’re someone with a super heavy flow.

Since period undies are your actual undergarments, chances are you’ll be using them for the rest of the day with little opportunity for changing. So if you bleed a lot, then even the heavy flow period panties might not suffice.

Period Poverty And Accessibility

Reusable period pad
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It isn’t a holistic conversation about zero waste periods if we don’t mention the elephant in the room: that access to period products is quite the privilege everyone in the world gets to enjoy.

While we are talking about which alternative period product is the best for our zero waste lifestyle, there are people who have to go through their periods without any products at all. Those in remote areas, underdeveloped nations, the homeless, and so many others.

If you’ve never had to worry about the cost of period care, then you are incredibly fortunate. There are so many women, young girls, and anyone who has a period, that is constantly experiencing poverty-related period stress.

Since period care is absolutely non-negotiable in most scenarios, it’s incredibly odd that there hasn’t been more systemic action to make period products more accessible or available at virtually no cost.

As consumers, our power to change this is limited, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We can do something about greater period accessibility through involvement in local grassroots movements, NGOs, or even something as simple as destigmatizing period in daily conversation.

And just like in our push for zero waste, individual changes will only get us so far. For us to save our planet and biodiversity, we have to fight for systemic changes that can actually change how we operate on a wider scope.

Final Thoughts

Making the switch to zero waste period products can be quite a leap from regular pads and tampons.

But trust us, it’s worth it. Although it might take some time before your period is completely plastic-free, the mere fact that you’re thinking of making the switch to zero waste is already such a huge step towards a more eco-conscious lifestyle!

When shopping for period products, always remember that there’s no one size fits all. We all have our preferences, and that’s completely okay!

Whether it be period panties, cups, reusable pads, or biodegradable pads and tampons, we hope you find the best period care items that work for your cycle.

Resources:

  1. https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-2020/
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic
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