Women in North America annually dispose of 20 billion chlorine bleached tampons, pads, and their packaging. This waste also includes the synthetic fiber rayon found in most commercial tampons, the pesticides associated with cotton cultivation, plastics of packaging and applicators, and dioxin, a by-product of chlorine bleaching.
When weighing the environmental consequences of our choices for menstrual products, we must also consider the environment of our bodies and personal health.
The Staphylococcus aureus bacteria of Toxic Shock Syndrome thrives on rayon, the synthetic fiber contained in most commercial tampons. Chlorine, used in bleaching, has been determined to cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. Dioxin, a by-product of chlorine bleaching and one of the deadliest substances ever produced, causes a wide range of health problems like headaches, cancer, and birth defects.
With traditional use of commercial tampons and pads, natural resources are wasted, waters are polluted, and our bodies are put at risk.
There are a number of healthier alternatives, although none are the perfect solution.
Any 100 percent organic cotton tampons or pads made without chlorine are better choices than the commercial ones, but these are still disposable products, adding to wastes in landfills and wasting precious resources.
I strongly recommend you consider the use of a reusable menstrual product. They have fewer negative impacts on the environment, your body, and your pocketbook.
For externally worn products, there are a wide variety of cloth pads available. Of course, if you're industrious, you could always sew your own. I even know of a woman who uses her socks that have lost a mate. She says to just make sure they are all cotton, as synthetics don't absorb well. She just folds them in half and tucks them into her underwear.
The Keeper is a menstrual cup made of natural gum rubber. The rubber trees are tapped for their sap but not cut down.
The Keeper is worn internally and catches menstrual flow, rather than absorbing it like a tampon. It is inserted and removed without the use of an applicator and needs to be emptied from 6 to 12 hours of use, depending on your flow. You just break the suction that holds it in place, remove it, empty the contents (into a toilet, sink, etc.), and either rinse it out or just wipe it off depending on your resources at the time.
Personally, I have never tried this product, and I have heard mixed reviews from other women. But the majority absolutely love it. Some have not had good success. The main complaint I have heard is difficulty in removing it without spilling its contents. But this is something which probably just takes a bit of practice.
The Keeper has been on the market since the early 1940s, but since this was about the same time that disposable products first hit the market, it was largely overlooked.
It comes in two styles-- (a) after vaginal childbirth and (b) for all others. Cost is $35.00, but the Keeper is supposed to last for at least ten years. (Over the same ten years, you'd probably spend between $400 and $700 on disposable products.)
I have also heard of women using diaphragms in much the same way as the Keeper. Friends report the same problems with contents spilling but find it an acceptable compromise for specific times, such as bicycling and swimming when cotton pads won't work.
Silk sea sponges are another reusable, internally worn alternative. I have never been able to find any documented information about their use until recently. There is a pamphlet written by Bonnie Ferguson and Teri Dowling available through Medea Books (1-800-41-MEDEA) that describes use. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a copy by press time.
However, I have been using sponges for the past nine years, and I swear by them. They are usually marketed as cosmetic silk sea sponges and can also be found in art supply stores, usually with supplies for working with clay.
It is important to pick out sponges that are denser, having less large pores. Sponges like this have better absorbency power and last longer. Clean your brand-new sponge by boiling it in water for five minutes. It will shrink a bit. I don't recommend boiling your sponges monthly as this will gradually deteriorate them. After the initial boiling water treatment, just rinse them out in cool water after use. If you feel the need, you can occasionally clean them with mild soap or a solution of baking soda and water. Then rinse thoroughly.
Sponges are cheap, usually not more than $1.50 a piece. I would suggest buying just one and trying out its shape and size so you can see what is comfortable for you.
The only bad experience I ever had with sponges was when I was first experimenting with wearing them, and I used one that ended up being too large for me. I got cramps that were alleviated immediately upon removal of the sponge. I ended up cutting the sponge into two smaller ones. Larger sponges can always be cut down to size.
You need at least two sponges so that you can alternate their use while one dries. They are changed at about the same frequency as tampons. I have heard of tying string through the sponge to facilitate its removal, like the string of a tampon. However, I have no personal experience with this. Insertion and removal of a sponge is easy, and like tampons, they cannot be lost inside of you. If you are not comfortable using you fingers, it may take a little getting used to. Bearing down will help.
After removal, the sponge needs to be rinsed out in water. This only takes a moment, and I have never had a problem discreetly rinsing out my sponge in a public restroom. It is not necessary for the sponge to be completely dry before reinsertion. In fact, you might find it more comfortable to reinsert if it is slightly damp. If the sponge is still wet, it will need to be changed sooner as its absorbency is decreased. They do not take long to dry though, and if you are alternating between two or three sponges you won't ever be without a dry one.
I store my sponges in a thin cotton bag.
I do not know if sea sponges are cultivated or harvested from the wild. So I do have unanswered questions as to the ecological impact of using them. The sponges I have purchased locally originated in the Philippines. However, over the last nine years I have only used five sea sponges, keeping approximately 108 boxes containing 2,160 tampons out of the landfill. (Not to mention only spending $7.50 versus $600.)
Even with environmental awareness, personal habits are difficult to change. This is especially true with habits as intimate as those involving our menstrual cycles. I encourage you to at least try one of these alternatives to disposable menstrual products. You could be surprised at how comfortable and easy they are. Plus, your body will benefit from less exposure to harmful chemicals and synthetics, and the Earth will benefit from your personal choices.
Rebeca Potasnik, staff member of the Green Pages, is not a women's health specialist but speaks from her personal healthy experience.
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