The Rag. The Curse. Aunt Flo. Whatever term you use to desribe your period, there's no denying your "monthly gift" has a profound impact on the Earth.
Over the course of a lifetime, the average woman will menstruate about 440 times, she'll use about 15,000 sanitary napkins or tampons, adding up to 125 to 150 kg of waste, according to a 2004 report. This waste ends up in landfills or in sewage systems which can overflow into lakes and oceans. In one cleanup of a 4.6-mile stretch of the sea floor off the coast of Malta, tampons and tampon applicators accounted for 5 percent of the 621 pounds of debris collected.
Most tampons are made with a blend of cotton and rayon, and some tampons are covered with an "overwrap" that consists of a man-made fabric. The applicators are made from plastic or cardboard, both of which end up clogging sewer systems and landfills.
Rayon is made from cellulose fiber found in trees, but it should be noted this is a man-made fiber that is derived from a plant by treating it with chemicals, including sodium hydroxide and either carbon disulfide or cupprammonium liquor, which is made with copper and ammonia. It is not a natural fiber.
Maxi pads don't fare any better. Most pads are composed of wood cellulose fibers that have been chemically processed, and a plastic layer to prevent leakage. In fact, the average pad is 90 percent plastic, made from crude oil, and this plastic will stick around in a landfill for about 500 years.
And as competitors race to produce the newest ultra-thin, highly absorbent pads, new man-made materials are emerging.
But there are functional and environmentally responsible alternatives.
Menstrual cups offer a green alternative to tampon users. The cups are inserted and can be worn for up to 12 hours.
The Keeper, perhaps the most widely known brand, is made from natural rubber and the company says it can last for as long as a decade before you need to replace it. For women with latex allergies, the makers of the Keeper have developed the Moon Cup, which is made from medical-grade silicone. Both products are FDA-approved, but they are not approved for sale in Canada.
The only menstrual cup approved by Health Canada is the Diva Cup, a latex-free high-grade silicone cup (the FDA has also approved it). Diva Cup recommends replacing their product annually, and they recommend taking to your doctor if you have any health concerns, such as whether the cup could irritate internal hemorrhoids. Menstrual cups should not be used by anyone who has suffered Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Natural sea sponge tampons are another option, and are generally sold in some health food stores and online. Most companies, including Jade & Pearl, say their product-which is a natural sponge from the ocean that readily re-grows when it is harvested-can be washed and re-used for up to six months. But women should be careful about using these products.
When a University of Iowa lab tested 12 sponges in 1980, they found sand, grit and bacteria. The FDA followed up with further testing and found sand, grit, bacteria, yeast and mold, as well as Staphylococcus aureus in one sample. As a result of these tests, the FDA requires pre-market approval for any sea sponge products being marketed as menstrual tampons. If you do wish to use sea sponge tampons, make sure they have FDA approval.
Reusable cloth pads have been around for centuries, in one form or another, and they're starting to see a resurgence in popularity, particularly among environmentally conscious women who would rather not use menstrual products that are worn internally.
All washable pads are comprised of a surface fabric and an absorbent core, and some pads also have a waterproof or water-resistant lining for heavy flow days, and a backing to keep the layers from shifting. The types of materials vary from organic cotton to synthetics that are good at wicking away moisture.
There are several types of plastics that can be used to prevent leaking, but the most common options are polyurethane laminate and vinyl or PVC. The lesser of these two environmental evils is undoubtedly polyurethane, and it has the added benefits of being washable and minimally breathable, and it poses fewer health risks.
Reusable pad makers are often sell their product online, either on their own websites or on handmade web retailer Etsy.com. Some health food stores also carry a limited supply of handmade, cloth pads. Several crafters also list detailed instructions for making your own pads on their personal blogs, offering patterns, fabric options and other information.
Most women who use cloth pads carry a sealable plastic bag or container with them to store used pads.
The one thing that holds many women back from switching to reusable products is the mess. Most women just don't want to have to deal with emptying menstrual cups or washing cloth pads. But there are environmentally responsible disposable products.
Just a handful of companies produce chlorine-free, biodegradable maxi-pads and tampons, but they're worth seeking out.
Natracare is one of these companies. They make their natural and organic pads, panty liners, and tampons from sustainable materials, and they are biodegradable and compostable.
Whichever option is the best fit for your life, switching to a reusable or biodegradable feminine hygiene product will vastly reduce waste, and it may be better for your overall gynecological health.