Reusable menstrual items don’t only help us be eco-friendly, they can change lives
Judith (center), a member of the Days for Girls Rwamagana Rwanda Enterprise, with two girls in Rwanda who just received their Days for Girls kit. Each kit includes liners, waterproof shields, soap, underwear, a washcloth, transport bag for washing and storing, and instructions inside of a drawstring bag. // Courtesy of Jeana Nash
By Winnie Killingsworth
This word can mean the punctuation at the end of a sentence or the beginning of the menstruation cycle for 26% of the world’s population.
“If it weren’t for periods, none of us would exist,” said Karen Stout, a member of the Days for Girls, a nonprofit focused on empowering girls and women all over the world, Bellingham chapter.
On average, a menstrual cycle lasts between 24 and 38 days while periods are between four to eight days.
Most women will get a period once a month for about 40 years, for a total of 480 periods during that span.
Changing a pad or tampon every eight hours, depending on the flow, over a four-day period means a minimum of 12 feminine hygiene products are thrown out for every period. Over the span of the average 480 periods, that’s 5,760 hygiene products used by one person.
The amount of waste that can be created by single-use hygiene products adds up quickly, but doesn’t break down as easily. A non-organic pad is estimated to take anywhere from 500 to 800 years to break down and likely releases microplastics into the environment as it does.
Susan E. Powers, director of Clarkson University’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment, who served as an advisor on a study about the life cycles of feminine hygiene products, was able to quantify the environmental impacts of reusable period products.
When comparing a reusable menstrual cup to disposable products used for one year, the study found the cup’s impact was “less than 1.5% the environmental impacts and approximately only 10% of the cost,” of a non-reusable option.
“[Many people] do not realize that there are alternative products [to single-use products] that are effective AND not disposable,” Powers said in an email.
Not to mention, the chemicals in average products include chemicals such as dioxin and pesticides. These can cause cancer, infertility and have numerous other health effects.
Feminine hygiene products don’t just hurt the environment, they also cost the consumer.
In 30 U.S. states, there’s a feminine hygiene product tax. Washington state abolished its tax Aug. 1, 2020 after passing Senate Bill 5147.
The cost and disposal of single-use hygiene products affects people experiencing periods all over the world. Days for Girls is one non-profit working to change this.
Days for Girls was started in 2008 by Celeste Mergens after she learned that many girls at an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya would sit on cardboard in their rooms during their periods. Many would go without food for days unless someone brought it to them.
This lack of access to hygiene products is a problem in many parts of the world.
Some girls are able to purchase pads but at the cost of being “sexually assaulted and mistreated by boyfriends, teachers, principals, family members, taxi drivers,” said Jeana Nash, an operations associate with Days for Girls, in an email.
Initially, Days for Girls provided single-use pads, but quickly discovered there wasn’t a way to easily dispose of them, so they shifted to reusable pads.
The pads are part of the Days for Girls Kit that includes liners, waterproof shields, soap, underwear, a washcloth, transport bag for washing and storing and instructions inside a drawstring bag.
To date, Days for Girls has helped over 2 million menstruators in more than 144 countries.
Smartliner pad, bag for storage, and instruction card. This is one option of reusable menstrual products available in the United States and Canada. // Photo by Winnie Killingsworth
Many in the United States and Canada have also shifted from single-use hygiene products to more sustainable, reusable ones.
Martha Quigg, a Seattle resident who uses a Saalt menstrual cup, said her cup has helped her reduce waste and limit how often she makes trips to the store. Although, she noted, the upfront cost of $29 for the cup caused her to wait for a while before making the purchase.
“[The cup] doesn’t need maintenance as frequently as traditional pads/tampons (only 2-3x per day), and stays in place during physical activity,” Quigg said in an email.
Two of Quigg’s roommates also use cups and they “all rave about them together,” Quigg said.
Another option for those interested in a menstrual cup, the JUNE cup is currently $6.
Even pads can be reengineered for reusability. Yasmeen Khoury, founder and designer of Smartliners pads, creates reusable pads with her patented super absorbent material called Smartsorb.
Simple changes and actions can have big impacts.
“I can’t change the culture someplace else … All I can do is make the world a little bit of a better place,” Stout said.
It’s time for the world of feminine hygiene products to be safer for users, better for the planet and accessible to all.
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