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Why is it so bloody difficult to be green?

Third prize essay winner of our Mind the Research Gap Student competition in partnership with WHAM, written by Mary De Vellis, MPhil student in Health Medicine and Society at the University of Cambridge.

"Mary's essay stood out for its personal and witty take on period products and period talk, at the intersection with sustainability and intergenerational differences"

In a world with so many choices for menstrual management, how do we choose the best options, not only for ourselves and our wallets, but for the planet? Why isn’t there enough research on the impacts of menstrual management, on both menstruators's bodies and the environment?

Let’s start with current menstrual waste. Most menstrual products end up in landfills. Tampons often have toxic chemicals in them, including dioxin, chlorine, and rayon, which seep into the ground as the used products sit in a landfill. These chemicals can also affect people wearing the tampons. Undisclosed chemicals and carcinogens in tampons, like phenols and phthalates, can disrupt hormonal circulation and endocrine processes. Because tampons are worn directly against the vaginal walls, chemicals can be absorbed into the bloodstream. No matter where they are, tampons can cause issues, though more research is needed to understand the extent of this damage.

Many environmentalists and advocates for gender equity have pushed for use of more sustainable period products. Absorptive underwear, reusable cloth pads, and menstrual cups are the most popular products in the market, though the vast majority of menstruators rely on single-use products. We need to push the switch to more sustainable products, but how can we actually help menstruators make this change?

But this switch is hard. Even as a young feminist, I had not heard of menstrual cups until university. I learned from a friend who spent the year before college living in Sub-Saharan Africa and raved about her cup. She cited the many times she left the cup in all day, not having to worry about public bathrooms or finding period products in a city where menstruators face stigma.

Menstrual cups could also be helpful for the local population in that city. Having a reusable product to manage menstruation without the stigma of leaving menstrual rags outside to dry could help more women stay in school and promote economic activity. However, many places around the world still struggle with stigma regarding insertion of menstrual products. How can we make this technology useable across cultural contexts?

Period underwear offer another solution to greening periods. These involved less vaginal contortion because these products do not require insertion. For this reason, period underwear can be especially helpful for anyone who has experienced sexual trauma or is in the postpartum period. Moreover, these underwear do not contain extra chemicals and incorporate period care into clothing one would already wear. This prevents the “stuffing your pants” feeling that sometimes accompanies use of cloth pads. On the downside, period underwear made some feel like they were sitting in wetted pants all day–you don’t change the underwear as frequently as a pad so all of the blood from the whole day seeps in, sort of like a walking vampire trap.

With such great options, why aren’t people flocking towards the greener technology for menstrual care? Awareness remains a problem. Mothers often give their children the products they use for their first period products because that is what is in the house. Because alternative period products were not as popular when these mothers were growing up, they probably will not introduce alternative period care to their children.

Another reason people express issues with the cup is due to bathroom design, especially in public. Restrooms at schools and in work places are most often designed with stalls and communal sinks. When you change a menstrual cup you remove it from the vagina, dump the contents into the toilet, flush, wash the cup with soap and water, then reinsert it. If in a public bathroom, this could be considerably uncomfortable, especially for a young person, say in middle school, who is at an already precarious and self-conscious time during puberty. So many students, including myself in middle school, feel the need to hide their menstrual products in a sleeve or pocket when heading to the restroom, so rinsing out a cup of your own blood in a sink next to your peer seems like a less than ideal option. What type of reusable technology can be created to help mitigate these problems?

Wanting to see how this conversation on green period management plays out among women of multiple age groups, I turned to my family. My sisters had heard of Thinx and menstrual cups, but never used either for fear of smell, discomfort, and cleanliness. One of them was also just lazy and stuck to what she knew. My mother’s generation had either not heard of a menstrual cup or period underwear or had heard about it from their children. This is the reverse of the usual flow of “women’s knowledge,” where mothers usually teach their children. Women at this age seemed more concerned about convenience and comfort rather than sustainability when they learned about these new products. Finally, I chatted with some of the older women in my life. What is better than getting a call from your granddaughter and hearing, “How is your period going, Grandma?” Both grandmothers discussed stigma and emphasizing the modernity of disposable products in their 1950s youth.

From these conversations what I learned was this: period knowledge has become less stigmatized, but is still engrained from your influences at a young, and habits are very influential for women deciding on menstrual management. New networks of education and communication about menstrual management are needed to encourage menstruators to seek out and use sustainable products, as well as continued research on the uptake of new technology and the impacts of chemicals on menstruators’ bodies. Finally, we need the people who design spaces, especially bathroom, to consider that someone may need privacy to manage their menstruation.

No product will be perfect for everyone, so it’s important to support a variety of options for greener menstrual management. More research will aid this process of understanding the risks of different forms of menstrual management and the ways to encourage uptake of the most sustainable methods to live with a period.

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