What's in the trash?
A recent waste sort of Minneapolis residential trash found that four percent of what residents throw away by weight is comprised of diapers and feminine hygiene products. A Canadian study found women on average use 13 products during each menstrual cycle. The author of the book, "Flow: the Cultural History of Menstruation" estimates women throw out on average 250-300 lbs of tampons, pads and applicators in their lifetime.
While there are some lower-waste options among the vast array of disposable products available to women—pads that aren’t individually wrapped and applicator free tampons—there are also many waste-free options—reusable pads, menstrual cups, period underwear and natural sponges. And, in addition to being waste-free, they save money and for many, are more comfortable.
Every woman is different and finding the right reusable option for your period may require some initial product testing and patience. I use a combination of reusable products—reusable pads, a menstrual cup and period underwear. While the initial price is higher, these products will last much longer. I’ve had my menstrual cup for five-plus years and my reusable pads for a decade, and both are holding up beautifully.
So what exactly are reusable pads, menstrual cups and period underwear?
Reusable pads are made of fabric, and can be washed and reused for years. They are just as, if not more absorbent, than disposable pads. I pre-rinse mine with soap and water and then launder with the rest of my clothes.
Menstrual cups are small little cups made of rubber or silicone that are somewhat similar to a tampon but instead of absorbing your flow, they collect it. They are flexible and can be folded flat for getting them in place and have a little stem for removal. While these can take a little getting used to, they are by far the easiest reusable option for periods. You only need one cup and it will last 10-20 years if cared for properly. I simply wash my after each use with soap and water. Additionally, depending on flow, they can be left in for up to 12 hours.
Period underwear is underwear that essentially has a built in pad in them. They aren’t as bulky however as a pad because they use a super absorbent material to soak up your flow. Period underwear aren’t great for heavy flow periods, but they work great in combination with a menstrual cup on the days that you need extra protection. While menstrual cups don’t leak for all, I find mine does a little and having the period underwear is the perfect back-up. I also use them exclusively on my light flow days, without a cup. These are the most expensive option if you want enough pairs to get you through a cycle. After use I pre-rinse mine with soap and water and launder them with the rest of my clothing. These, however, should not go in the dryer, as it will break down the absorbent liners.
Natural sponges are like tampons but are natural sea sponges, which are reused over and over. They are affordable and easy to clean. They come in different sizes but can be cut down to fit if you find yours is too large. However, this option won’t last as long as reusable pads, menstrual cups and period underwear. Six to 12 months is the typical life for natural sponges.