How Kiwis are offsetting menstruation's negative impact on the environment
At a recent women's conference I met a Vagina Warrior. She told me she was on a mission to rehabilitate misunderstood vaginas. If it wasn't for the fact that she was just out of her teens I might have thought I'd met a relic of the 70s. The words were so familiar though I last heard them nigh on four decades ago. Probably at a women's group where we sat around examining our private parts with a hand mirror.
But Emi Tapley was clearly a product of a different time because she wanted to do more than just educate women. She was also peddling a solution to some of the vagina's most misunderstood moments, with a menstrual cup and special menstrual underwear available for purchase on her website, groundedness.com. At this point I must have looked blank because she dug into her shoulder bag and from its depths produced what looked like a woodland creature's pink hat or, when turned the other way, a mini-wine goblet without the base.
"The Ruby Cup," she announced.
"Also available in blue. You just insert this inside the vagina and it collects all the menstrual blood. No tampons or pads necessary."
I have to admit I recoiled, an involuntary response prompted by flashbacks featuring the natural alternative trumpeted by vagina warriors of my day – the sponge. The sponge was, as its name suggests, an actual sea sponge, once a multi-cellular living organism, resuable for up to a year and said to be the eco answer to tampons. My memories of yellow, fist-sized clumps squatting damply in the bathrooms of various flats was not helping the ruby cup's case. As it turned out, sea sponges were dodgy, filled with dirt, grit, bacteria and other materials no one wants to insert into her body. It was also easy for bits to break off during use thus providing a lovely breeding ground for all sorts of nasties. No wonder it never caught on.
Was the menstrual cup the millennial's version of the ill-fated sponge?
"They're great," enthused Tapley.
"Easy to use, cheaper and so much better for the environment."
I didn't see Tapley after that but later I began to make casual enquiries about menstrual cups. Turns out my 21-year-old daughter uses one. She read an article about it somewhere, read some more online and ordered one, again online. She admits it took a bit of getting used to. Inserting and removing can be tricky but she's used to it now. For her, the driving reason behind converting to a menstrual cup was that it reduced the amount of waste she put into the environment but she figures she's also saved a lot of money.
She doesn't know anyone else who uses one though maybe that's not so surprising. Despite the fact that half the world's population between the ages of roughly 10 and 55 menstruate, the topic is rarely discussed – even among women.
Denise Roche, Green Party spokesperson on waste, isn't surprised. She says it's all part of the women-hating-their-bodies sentiment prevalent in our culture.
"There are so many ads aimed at women using these products but the message is always coded because of the cultural taboo we have about talking about menstruation. The women featured in these ads are always wearing white jeans and everything looks so pristine. But it's a multi-billion dollar industry so we should be talking about what we're putting into our bodies and what it does to the environment."
Tampons, as we now know them, weren't invented until the 20th century and weren't really embraced by women until the 1960s when they were marketed with that decade's tropes of freedom and feminism.
In the past few decades we've all come to love the convenience and hygiene of tampons but the awful truth, says Roche, is this way of dealing with periods is not sustainable.
The facts are disturbing. Over a lifetime the average woman uses between 11000 and 17,000 tampons and/or pads costing her anything from $5000 to $15,000.
In that time those tampons create up to 140kg of waste, leach chemicals into the environment and, when flushed down the toilet, cost a bundle to remove from our waste water system. They shouldn't end up there but they often do. Europeans tend to bin tampons. British women are keener on flushing. No stats are available for New Zealand women but my money is on flushing. Binning is better, though not a lot if they're wrapped in plastic and arrive in landfills that way.
Watercare surveys at the Mangere wastewater treatment plant in Auckland found 40 per cent of the material found in screenings should not have been flushed or washed down the sewer. The biggest offender was wipes making up to 45 per cent of that illicit material, followed by hard-wearing (not toilet) paper at 12-26 per cent.
Feminine hygiene products at 6-16 per cent were the third largest group of troublesome items to be caught in the system. Once extracted and dumped in a landfill, tampons may remain there for years before breaking down. Organic tampons decompose faster and are chemical-free but they cost more so they're not the solution, just a less damaging option.
Then there's the energy and chemicals required to make these products. Turning wood pulp and cotton into soft absorbent fibres is a resource-intensive business. These single-use items often contain non-biodegradable materials and chemicals such as polyethylene, polyester string and polypropylene. Some also contain fragrance ingredients and are chlorine bleached.
As for plastic applicators, they can be found littering beaches overseas and they foul the ocean.
It's hardly news to anyone that swallowing plastic is a death sentence for fish. Add to that an unholy mix of wrappers, cardboard applicators and transportation and it's clear those innocuous white plugs pack quite an environmental wallop.
When I asked Johnson & Johnson (who make Carefree tampons) about this I was sent a general response which stated that the company "has a corporate-wide sustainability programme to help us reduce environmental impacts from our operations, products and services, and pursues sustainability initiatives, such as reducing waste and promoting recycling". Also its products have minimal packaging and include a statement encouraging consumers to consider the environment and waterways when disposing of their products. Procter & Gamble, the manufacturers of Tampax, never got back to me.
That's not to say women should now add killing the planet to the list of crimes to feel guilty about. The 2009 book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation estimates that feminine hygiene products only make up 0.5 per cent of personal landfill waste. But since there are alternatives, maybe we should start talking about them. Maybe it's time we gave menstrual cups their due. They've been around long enough.
Writer Natalie Shure traces the commercial production of tampons and cups to the same decade – the 1930s. In an article in the Pacific Standard last year Shure explains menstrual cups were patented in 1935 by a retired American actress Leona Watson Chalmers, who named it the Tassette. But Chalmers' marketing was not as aggressive or effective as the manufacturers of the tampon patented four years earlier. When World War II came along, Tassette production stopped altogether because of a rubber shortage. By the time it was reborn, women had got used to tampons. Besides, why would any company want to promote a product that lasts for years as opposed to one you need to buy by the boxload every month?
For a long time there were no cups on the market until The Keeper debuted in the United States in 1987. Thirty years later, they still haven't caught on. Menstrual cups are generally not part of the discussion when teaching adolescents in schools about puberty.
Family Planning says the extra upfront cost is one reason they don't offer them as an option, even though it wouldn't take long to recoup the initial investment. A menstrual cup costs between $35 and $60 and, depending on who you ask, can last between a few years and a lifetime.
Some women will tell you they are repelled by the prospect of having such close contact with their own blood, but tampons also suffered from an ick response in the early days. Insertion required close contact with genitals and potentially damaged one's purity by tearing the hymen. Once women tried tampons, they quickly got over those objections.
Shure writes that research shows habits surrounding menstrual products are often passed on from mothers to daughters and these habits are hard to break.
US research reveals only 2 per cent of women use reusable products. Initially a sceptic herself, Shure says once she got past "the knee-jerk disgust, the learning curve, the tween trauma reboot when I bungled the seal and leaked onto my (mercifully black) skirt", she became a true believer. As Shure points out "history tells us that we change what we use only after we change how we think."
Kate Meads, the New Zealand Nappy Lady blogger promoting waste-free parenting, believes it's high time we changed our thinking.
"Go to any wastewater treatment plant and look at the bin with all the wipes, liners and tampons. It's so gross. The biggest advantage of the menstrual cup is that there's zero waste and, honestly, they're way more comfortable."
Meads insists discomfort only occurs when the cups aren't inserted properly.
"I've used a menstrual cup for 12 years. If you have the right size, they should be comfortable. If they are not popped out fully, that is, if you put your fingers up inside and you can feel that the cup is slightly depressed, then it's not popped out. If it's not a firm shape, then it's not sealed properly. Just give it a squeeze and twist.
"It took me two cycles to get used to it. Honestly, I've never had a spillage and I find it way cleaner than using anything else because everything is fully contained."
For women reluctant to try menstrual cups Meads recommends resuable pads. She trialled them for her blog and found them absorbent and odour-free, thanks to new wicking technology.
A wildly unscientific SurveyMonkey survey on how women feel about using a Mooncup (a UK brand) was initiated by Liz Willoughby-Martin from Commonsense Organics this year. Of 100 fairly self-selected women surveyed (more responded, they just didn't pay the extra to get that info) 7 per cent found Mooncups uncomfortable, 57 per cent found them difficult to use at the start and 36 per cent had no problems.
Almost 80 per cent said the cup was life-changing.
Auckland-based Mooncup distributor Vanessa Scott is in the life-changing camp.
"As a feminist I get great glee out of not funding corporates run by men. Once I got a Mooncup there was nothing else. They're so much easier."
Christchurch businesswoman Kimberli Schuitman was so impressed by her experience with a menstrual cup, she not only decided to market them on mycup.co.nz but she is also committed to rolling them out as cheaply as possible to universities and eventually high schools.
"We are subsidising them into a pilot program set up by two smart university students. They started with Massey in Wellington but will to take it to Auckland, Otago and Canterbury over the next 6 months. Any money generated from the sales will go back into education about menstrual cups and to students who can't afford to buy them."
She says she also offered cups to the Foodbank Project but it wasn't interested.
Communications to politicians with offers to assist women unable to afford menstrual products also went unheeded.
"Last month the Government announced they would donate $50,000 to KidsCan for sanitary items. The question is why are they not supplying menstrual cups? We could have easily popped a cup in the packs they are handing out. It would have been super cheap as we would have supplied them at cost."
I couldn't help but note that all the cup users I spoke to were more than advocates for a new way of dealing with their periods. They were crazy about these dinky silicon goblets, raving about the difference and what it meant for their bodies. Schuitman is no exception.
She is obsessed with collecting historic data, images and current research, most of which I had read, but I didn't know that tampons absorb up to 35 per cent of your body's natural fluids as well as menstrual fluids. She sent me the research citation. No more dry dragging feeling, she said.
Since she was on a roll she continued: "It's not shameful to bleed once a month – all women do it and we need to celebrate it. I'm so excited about this because menstrual cups changed how I perceived myself, my familiarity with my body, my freedom. I had more control. I could travel and not worry where I would buy my next pack of tampons."
There are lots of menstrual cups on the market with suitably dinky names. Tapley sells Ruby Cups. JuJu hails from Australia. Diva and Lunette are American. All can be bought online or from specialty health food shops.
If none of the reasons mentioned so far has been enough to convince readers the cup is worth trialling, then consider this: the ads are better. (Go to YouTube and search "Period Drama" and "The Mooncup rap".) Funnier by far, and not a pair of white jeans in sight.