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The Cycle of Periods & Pollution

Almost anyone with a period will do whatever they can to avoid an embarrassing bleed-through accident on those "gush days." This creates a conflict for eco-conscious feminists who want to protect the environment and opt for convenience on those heavy flow days.

Leah Rodriguez, Women and Girls writer at Global Citizen, explains that “Pads and tampons end up in landfills before they break down into microplastics that pollute oceans, rivers, beaches and contaminate our water supply.”

It is known that sanitary pads and tampons cause sustainability issues, but menstruating women can't always be left without them. This begs the questions, what did women use before these absorbent products were created? What can we use that won't take up to 800 years to decompose?

Simple Health took a look back to 3,000 B.C. when Ancient Egyptians made tampons out of softened papyrus or wrapped bits of wood with lint and even sea sponges. Throughout the years, period ingenuity evolved, and women became more creative with recycled flannel, makeshift belts, sheep’s wool, and rags. Hence the term we all love to hate: "on the rag."

With a quick Google search, you'll find varying answers regarding when the first sanitary product was invented because women have been inventing them forever. What does seem to align is the story of the WWI nurses who noticed that surgical dressings made from wood pulp, or cellucotton were more effective at absorbing blood not only on the battlefield but also for women's menstrual cycles. It certainly helped that there was an abundance after the war.

According to Jennifer Kotler, Ph.D., science writer at Clue Period & Cycle Tracker, “This inspired the first cellulose Kotex sanitary napkin, made from surplus high-absorption war bandages, which was first sold in 1918. By 1921, Kotex had become the first successfully mass-marketed sanitary napkin.”

The design improved over the years, and pads became stickier, thinner, thicker, longer, and shaped to fit different body types. While these designs and conveniences may have been well-intentioned, this is arguably the start of the production of female products that cause major environmental damage resulting from pollution, lack of decomposition, and high use of energy for plastic production.

“By the 1960s, chemists were busy developing sophisticated plastics and other synthetics. The technologies leapt forward so quickly that manufacturers found themselves searching for new markets into which they could incorporate their new materials,” says Alejandra Borunda, a writer with National Geographic.

Today, most pads don’t just include cellucotton. The Period Co. Explains how sanitary products, including tampons, are killing us with dioxin toxins, fragrances, and plastics. Even pesticides end up in our underwear as a result of the pest control sprayed on cotton crops.

Modern-day manufacturers continue to think outside of the box to produce items that have never been done before to eliminate waste. Companies like Cora produce cardboard or applicator-less tampons, which tend to be more expensive. In contrast, large and cheaper distributors like Kotex still package tampons in plastic wrappers and plastic applicators.

Thinx creates period-proof underwear and even provides an online tool to help people with periods or postpartum symptoms find the right Thinx undies for their flow. They are so sure, they even have a 60-day money-back guarantee.

Menstrual Disks and Cups are another popular option that was actually first invented in 1937 by American actress Leona Chalmers. They have become more popular and widely available by well-known companies like The DivaCup, which offers women up to 12 hours of leak-free protection, comfort, and convenience.

While Menstrual cups are made of medical-grade silicone, latex, Rodrigues adds that they have less than 1.5% environmental impact and can save women 2,400 pads or tampons.

A common question and concern among women and doctors is how these products affect hygiene. Periods are messy and unsightly, and it usually feels best to throw away the evidence and leave it out of sight, out of mind. Believe it or not, caring for reusable products is not unsanitary or difficult.

According to Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, and Alysa Hullett, a writer with Greatist, "As long as you care for your menstrual cup, reusable pad, or period undies as instructed, it's just as sanitary as that tampon you threw in the trash. Most menstrual cups require regular sanitizing with soap and boiling water, while period underwear and reusable pads are rinsed and then go through the wash cycle. Voilà — they're just like new."

What may seem Iike another downside is the costs that may be perceived as too high for reusable period products, in addition to the costs of pain medication and new underwear. While products will have a higher upfront cost, it’s important to remember that they are still more cost-effective if they aren’t thrown away.

Reusable products range anywhere from $12-$40, which could be unappealing. However, Annie Dillon, MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering explains that reusable products are keepers compared to the 10-year supply of tampons alone, which generally cost around $650.

It’s difficult to comprehend how we have gone from papyrus and sea sponges to plastic and chemicals to rely on during that time of the month. Luckily, women now have more of a say in period pollution by choosing better options for the environment, and themselves.


About the Author

Jeana Prudhomme

Jeana Prudhomme is a Communications professional, as well as the Founder and Editor of Respect Your Mother Magazine. She received B.A in Communications from Alverno College in 2017, and an M.A in New Media and Professional Writing in the Spring of 2022. After years of focusing on solutions journalism and non-fiction writing related to feminism and sustainability, she has created art from her passions in the form of this ecofeminist magazine.

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