Environmental protection, reproductive health and sustainable development are often viewed in silos or as agendas opposed to each other. This Earth Day, we ask, can these goals be achieved simultaneously? Reusable menstrual products, such as the menstrual cup, are environment-friendly, economically viable and beneficial for women’s health. So, if we can end period poverty and achieve sustainability simultaneously, why has this not happened yet? This article discusses the resurgence of reusable menstrual products, their environmental, economic and health benefits, and how they can be mainstreamed.
Whilst reusable menstrual products have been in the market for 100 years; many are unaware of their existence. The menstrual cup, for instance, was first prototyped in the 1860-1870s and later patented by America actress Leon Chalmers in 1937. Since the early 2000s, it has been commercially sold by various companies, yet never taken centre-stage. Perceptions around such products are changing. As the BBC finds, the popularity of reusable menstrual hygiene products is on the rise with google searches increasing as seen below.
Moreover, sales of brands, like the Moon Cup, have increased by 98% over the last five years. Nonetheless, the market remains small, with only 2-3% of women using reusable menstrual products in America. With the average woman using more than 11,000 pads or tampons in her lifetime, we fail to discuss the approximately 100 billion menstrual hygiene products disposed of annually. The growth of environmental awareness has been a contributor to the rise in reusable products. Moreover, many have opted for cups due to cost-effectiveness or health benefits. As the founders of Moon Cup state, women have started embracing a “safer, greener and cheaper” period.
Despite taboos around insertable products, menstrual cups contain safer ingredients. In a 2011 study, 91% of women who tried them said they would recommend them to their friends. Furthermore, it offers convenience, with one cup being used for up to 12 hours, longer than pads or tampons. This makes them suitable for women in rural areas who may be living “with no toilets, electricity or running water” as stated by Vanessa Paranjothy, founder of Freedom Cup, an initiative for which she has been awarded the Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia. Beyond safety, perhaps the biggest concern for users is using an unfamiliar product. To this end, there are various sites which educate women on trying menstrual cups for the first time.
The increasing concern for the environment is driving the uptake of menstrual cups. As the UNEP finds, an estimated 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions are generated annually from manufacturing disposable menstrual products. Additionally, an estimated 12 billion pads and seven billion tampons end up in landfills yearly. Individually, this amounts to a carbon footprint of 5.3 kgCO2 per person.
Low-density polythene used in pads and tampons is particularly damaging for the planet. This has harmful effects on oceans. For example, a recent report found that disposable menstrual products are the fifth most common type of waste washing up on beaches. Reusable products are indeed, a key solution. For instance, as the diagram below shows, one menstrual cup could save over 2,500 disposable pads and tampons.
In many countries, the “tampon tax” means women face expensive periods. Despite the recent abolishment of the tax in India, products remain unaffordable for many. As the founders of the Freedom Cup state, menstrual cups “help women living in the Third World, who cannot afford sanitary products.” Such projects currently distribute free cups to underprivileged women via their sustainable business model. Beyond the direct price, disposable pads also contribute to additional costs like lost schooling or earning less money whilst women are on their period. The menstrual cup helps with this, allowing women to be outdoors and active, without the need to use the bathroom frequently.
Lastly, the menstrual cup aids average working women who spend thousands on pads and tampons over the course of their menstruating life. A typical menstrual cup costs between ₹300 to ₹1000 in India, which can be used for up to 10 years, this breaks down to less than 25 INR per period. Despite these arguments, the question remains, why has the menstrual cup not taken off?
Disposable menstrual products are produced by a $6 billion industry. Profit motives mean companies are unlikely to shift towards reusable products. Some companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble argue shifting consumer behaviour is extremely difficult. In reality, revealing the reusable counterfactual to their customers is going to disrupt the traditional business model. For instance, big market players have stifled any competition faced, making it hard for small reusable products companies to scale-up.
Next, there is a cultural taboo. Despite attempts for popularisation and advocation by health professionals, menstrual cups remain unpopular due to their internal and reusable nature. Moreover, many women develop brand solidarity in their teenage years, and this is something that may be hard to change.
Girls continue to do what their moms or friends have done. There is a learning curve, as most girls are also not taught about reusable products in schools. This could improve with more awareness. Some organisations are holding events, like a recent event on Venice beach, in California, USA, highlighting pollution through disposable menstrual products.
Despite efforts, there is polarisation of views around reusable products. In the West, reusable products have obtained a “cult-like” status with popularisation amongst fringes of the ecofeminist movement. In developing countries, it is predominantly championed by NGOs and viewed as something that is suitable for women in poverty. It is conceded that reusable products are not going to be a solution to everyone’s needs.
For instance, the founders of the Moon Cup suggest it may not be suitable in rural contexts where women do not have adequate sanitation facilities since menstrual cup reuse requires clean water. Nonetheless, the popularisation of reusable products, like menstrual cups, requires awareness and adoption at large. Here is how you can take action:
In the early 90s, a third of menstrual product inventions were made by women, a disproportionate number, compared to patent statistics of the day. Today, too, women can lead a revolution by using and promoting sustainable, reusable menstrual products. When planetary problems seem very big, a small step this Earth Day can be taken by every woman around the world.