Why I am grateful to be a woman who menstruates in the 21st Century
+ How to have a zero-waste period
By: Madeleine Wisecup
If you’re an individual who menstruates today, count your blessings. Seriously. Do you have any idea what women went through before the invention of disposable feminine hygiene products?! Most likely this isn’t a topic you’ve thought about a lot. Neither did I, to be honest.
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If you’re an individual who menstruates today, count your blessings. Seriously. Do you have any idea what women went through before the invention of disposable feminine hygiene products?! Most likely this isn’t a topic you’ve thought about a lot. Neither did I, to be honest. But, as I started exploring zero-waste period alternatives and plastic pollution, it got me thinking…how did women manage their periods back in the day?
In today’s episode I’ll guide you through my favorite zero-waste period options, share my personal struggles with the menstrual cup (let’s just say things didn’t go as planned), explore the history of menstruation (will make you grateful to be a menstruating individual in the 21st Century!), the environmental impact of disposable period products, and more!
The History Of Menstruation
If you’re an individual who menstruates today, count your blessings. Seriously. Do you have any idea what women went through before the invention of feminine hygiene products?
Before the 1900’s women had very little options. While not much has actually been documented about the history of menstruation, especially from a woman’s perspective (for reasons I explore in today’s episode), historians believe, that most likely women used “folded cloths,” known as clouts or rags, to help absorb their flow (if they had the luxury of owning additional rags, of course). Another, and more likely scenario? Women just bled into their “chemises,” a practice that appears to have continued until the early 1800s.
It wasn’t until the 1920s, with the launch of Kotex, one of the first successfully marketed and mass produced disposable sanitary pads brands in the US, that things started to change for women. Where other brands had failed in the past to effectively market sanitary napkins, Kotex, a product developed by Kimberly Clark, an American paper company founded in 1870, succeeded.
How? Tune in to today’s episode to hear how WW1 nurses inspired Kimberly Clark to create Kotex, who invented the first disposable tampon applicator, and how ancient Greek and Roman physicians “scientifically” interpreted menstruation.
Environmental Impact of disposable period products
By the 1960s with the invention of plastic, chemists began searching for new markets into which they could incorporate their new materials, shares National Geographic. One of the markets they explored? Menstrual products. These new and improved plastic-based period products were revolutionary! Game changers for women in so many ways. They enabled designers to incorporate thin, flexible, leak-proof bases, wings, and, best of all, adhesives which allowed pads to be attached to women’s underwear directly. Bye bye sanitary belts.
Today, unfortunately, these plastic-based period products are ending up in our oceans, landfills, and polluting our beaches. In fact, according to Natrcacare.com, “period products are the fifth most common item found washed up on Europe’s beaches, with 1.4 million flushed down the loo every single day in the UK alone.”
Over the course of their lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons. How much waste does this produce? According to Organicup, “Tampons, pads and panty liners along with their packaging and individual wrapping generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year!” That’s about about twenty times as heavy as The Eiffel Tower!
In 2015 alone, the Ocean Conservancy collected 27,938 used tampons and applicators on beaches around the world in a single day (for more info click here)! Learning facts such as these inspired me early on in my eco-journey to make the switch to zero-waste period products.
Zero-Waste Period Products
Three of the most common zero-waste period products you’ll come across? Reusable pads, period underwears, and the menstrual cup. My top two favorite switches? Reusable pads and the period underwear. I am a fan — they’re super easy to use, care for, and amazing! I include an entire list of zero-waste period brands below.
Reusable pads: This is probably the easiest switch to start with. Just like disposable pads, these cloth pads fit into your underwear to absorb blood loss. Most pads have a snap option on the wings to help keep the pad from sliding around — works great. The difference is, once your reusable pad is “full” rather than tossing it into the trash you wash it. I soak mine in the sink with cold water, rinse it out, and then throw it in the washer. Once washed, I hang dry it.
Period Underwear: These are the best. It’s like wearing normal underwear but they absorb your blood loss. Women often ask me if I find it gross but honestly, these are so comfy and so effective.
Menstrual cup: Now, my experience with the menstrual cup…that’s a different story. Tune in today’s episode to hear more about that whole hilarious fiasco.
Looking for eco-friendly period products?
Here are 20+ Zero-Waste Period Brands I’ve compiled for you to explore!
Did you know “1 in 4 women in the US struggles to buy sanitary products due to a lack of income? In the first city-wide study on period poverty,” shares Period.org, “it was found that 46% of low-income women had to choose between a meal and period products.”
It’s called period poverty. A term that Global Citizen defines as “the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand-washing facilities, and/or waste management.” I was shocked to learn that “70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. In urban India, 43%-88% of girls use reusable cloth during menstruation, yet they are often washed without soap or clean water.”
One simple way you can support period poverty is by switching to zero-waste period products! Most, if not all, the brands I list below either partner with or donate period products to women in need.
Another way you can support period poverty is by donating sanitary products to organizations such as:
Other podcast episodes you might enjoy:
– Why your sex life may benefit from natural lube
- Read, Sara. “‘Thy Righteousness Is but a Menstrual Clout’: Sanitary Practices and Prejudice in Early Modern England.” Early Modern Women, vol. 3, 2008, pp. 1–25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23541514. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.
- Smithsonian Magazine: The Surprising Origins of Kotex Pads
- Museum of Menstruation & Women’s Health
- National Geographic: How tampons and pads became so unsustainable
- The Guardian: We need to talk about periods: why is menstruation still holding girls back?
- A Brief History of the Tampon
- Joseph Lister’s Antisepsis System
- Johnson & Johnson: Our Story
- The Atlantic: The Tampon: A History
- Tampax: The First Tampon
- EU Fact Check
- Global Citizen: Period Poverty
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