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Illustration by Quim Paredes

Sustainable Menstruation: Better for the Environment and You

Through sustainable menstruation, one can use alternative products during their menstrual cycle to the benefit of both their physical health and the environment.

Dec 2, 2018

My eyebrows furrowed in confusion as the phrase “Sustainable Menstruation” popped up on my computer screen. Those two words, “sustainability” and “menstruation” just didn’t seem to go together. How is one supposed to menstruate sustainably? As if menstruating is not difficult enough already. The phrase sustainable menstruation is confusing and its ambiguity has also led to multiple misconceptions about what it actually entails.
To understand sustainable menstruation, it is important to understand commercial Menstrual Hygiene Products such as sanitary pads and tampons. The presence of dangerous chemicals, such as pesticide residues, bleach and phthalates, make commercial MHPs incredibly harmful to one's physical health and the environment. The average woman will use 12,000 to 16,000 disposable sanitary pads in her lifetime. MHPs are non-biodegradable, taking approximately 500 to 800 years to decompose. All of this waste adds up. 56 percent of the waste produced in Bengaluru, India, for example, is sanitary waste. Around the world, waste generation rates are rising, and the addition of sanitary napkins and tampons exacerbates this waste issue.
Sustainable menstruation refers to using alternative products during one’s menstrual cycle for the benefit of both physical health and the environment. While the most eco-friendly product is the menstrual cup. Sustainable menstruation can also be achieved using a less popular product — the reusable pad. Organic cotton tampons and pads are also great alternatives, however they are not as environmentally-friendly as menstrual cups or reusable pads due to the presence of non-biodegradable elements. As enthusiastic as one can be about such innovations, sustainable menstruation can also seem pretty unfamiliar and intimidating, especially when the menstrual cup is exclusively the face of many sustainable menstruation initiatives.
Some of the most common concerns have been about about the hygiene and process of inserting the cups. Menstrual cups are made up of medical grade silicone, which is extremely sanitary. Maintained hygiene can easily be ensured in the long-run by cleaning and inserting the product properly. Inserting the cup should not be painful or uncomfortable if inserted properly, regardless of whether or not one has had penetrative sexual intercourse.
Menstrual cups are extremely unique inventions. The quick act of putting the sanitary pad on your underwear and ripping it off like a bandaid incorporates no real interaction with your body. Mindlessly pushing the applicator of your tampon also doesn’t allow for you to interact with your body much. Using the menstrual cup, however, requires you to explore your vagina and interact more intimately with your body. Initially, this can feel like incredibly uncomfortable, but over time, I have really grown to value what the menstrual cup has taught me about the way my body behaves. Ultimately, it is not just about the lessons that are learned, but rather the inarticulable experience of feeling extremely connected with yourself through a deep interaction with one of the most precious parts of the female body.
Adopting a sustainable menstruation lifestyle is definitely easier said than done. While some of my friends were able to get the hang of using a cup within a week, it took me half a year to really be comfortable with the change. It is very important to remember that everyone adapts at their own pace. Many narratives can make it seem like menstrual cups are the only way to steer into a more sustainable direction, but they are not. Anyone can be introduced to sustainable menstruation by using organic cotton sanitary pads or tampons, or trying out one reusable pad per cycle.
The sustainable menstruation journey is not a black and white one. It takes time to adjust. But attempting this journey is beautiful and empowering in itself. Sustainable menstruation has revolutionized the way people think about sanitary waste. This growing environmental concern has been taken into the hands of women who are striving to make a difference by changing this small yet significant monthly practice. These women add a little magic to menstruation.
Lubnah Ansari is a contributing writer. Email her at
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