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How to Have a Zero Waste and Plastic Free Period

Written by Sarah Robertson-Barnes for The Zero Waste Collective

Let’s talk about periods. On average, a menstruating person uses approximately 10,000 tampons and/or pads (not to mention panty liners) in their lifetime, amounting to billions of single-use products a year in the US alone. Those numbers are staggering before we even factor in the financial cost! In many areas of the world, folks do not have access to supplies and may miss school or work because of their periods.

Simply put, this is not sustainable.

Conventional products are made of plastic and cotton (a resource-heavy crop) or wood pulp/cellulose, and treated with chemicals for scent, colour, absorption, and waterproofing. As with all other single-use products, they require resources to produce, package, ship, and dispose of. Once used, they end up in the landfill for an unknown amount of time, or worse, flushed into our waterways.

By switching to reusables for menstruation, we can lower the demand for conventional products and significantly reduce our waste in the bathroom! The initial cost of the swap may be more than a box of disposables, but will save you time and money well into the future. As they become more mainstream, they are starting to pop up everywhere! Some companies also donate to folks in need of menstrual products around the world, so consider this when deciding what option is best for you.

The following zero waste and plastic free options may mean getting more comfortable with you body and menstruation itself as they are more hands on and require cleaning, but you got this! As with all things zero waste, there is no universal solution, only what works for you and your body.

Menstrual Cups

If you prefer tampons to pads, the menstrual cup might be the right choice for you! Typically made of medical grade silicone, menstrual cups can last up to 10 years when cared for properly. They are worn inside the body much like a tampon, but they hold more fluid. Once inserted, they open up and seal by suction, collecting the blood over and 8-12 hour period.

They may be tricky to get the hang of at first, but most brands have great tutorials and troubleshooting tips for you, including how to choose the right size for your body. (Note that cups may not be compatible for some people with an IUD in place, so please check with your doctor about this option.)

You will need access to a sink with clean running water to rinse out after emptying, but a quick wipe with toilet paper works every now and again in a pinch. Because they can last the whole day, a cup is a good option for people without regular access to private bathroom while out.

Some folks even report that using a cup has reduced cramping! Hurray!

Cups should be sanitized between cycles as well, so please be sure to follow the manufacturer's directions for cleaning. Staining may occur depending on the colour of the cup, but no worries if you are clean it correctly.

COST: About $20-$40 USD, depending on the brand.

Period Underwear

Period underwear fits just like regular underwear and absorbs much like a conventional maxi pad. They come in many colours and styles, even thongs! Most designs are a combination of layered fabrics that trap fluid inside the underwear and prevent it from leaking out. Some brands also offer additional inserts for heavy days, as well as options for bladder issues and postpartum.

Depending on your flow and what you choose, you can wear them for 8 hours or longer. You can wear these exclusively or in combination with cups for heavy days, or until you get the hang of getting the cup in the right spot. They are also great for light days toward the end of your cycle. How many pairs you need will depend on your flow, how you use them, and your laundry schedule.

To wash, rinse out well with cold water in the sink after wearing them. When your period is over, they can all go in the washing machine (on cold!) with your regular laundry and then hang to dry.

COST: Approximately $35-50 USD per pair, depending on brand and style.

Cloth Pads and Liners

Cloth pads are a great option if you prefer pads, do not like or cannot use tampons or cups, are new to menstruating, or are postpartum. They function in the same way to conventional pads in both form and function, with “wings” that snap together around your underwear and absorbing your flow just like a disposable.

Some options include removable inserts or waterproof liners for extra protection. As they are usually made from natural fabrics, you may find them less irritating to the skin as well. There seems to be an endless array of funky patterns and colour combinations, making this a really fun swap too.

As with period underwear, how long you can wear the pad will depend on your flow and what type you choose. Cloth pads and liners can also be used in combination with the cup for heavy days or extra protection. When the pad is full, simply rinse with cold water and wash as you would period underwear.

There are so many options for cloth pads, from fabric types and patterns, lengths, styles to match underwear, absorbency levels, to where to buy them! If you have basic sewing skills, this could be a great DIY for you - check out Pinterest for a pattern and put some scrap fabric to work. Look for a local maker on Etsy or check out some of the larger brands. With so many options, you are bound to find something that works for your needs and budget.

COST: $0-$25 USD depending on maker/brand and type of pad (i.e. light vs overnight with insert)

Additional tips for period underwear and cloth pads:

  • Be sure to use cold water for protein-based stains, such as blood, because warm or hot water causes the protein to break up, making it harder to remove.

  • Always air dry your period reusables to give them a longer life!

  • Consider using a “wet bag” if you are travelling, away from home for long periods of time, or to keep your rinsed reusables in one place before laundry day. Look for one secondhand, usually listed with cloth diapering supplies.

If you are ready to make the switch but have unopened products on hand, they are accepted for donations at many food banks and shelters. Take a look online for local organizations in need and give them a call first. An opened box can be used to stock the bathroom at school or work for folks in need of one - we’ve all been there!

Are you ready to make the switch to reusables for your period? With so many options, you are sure to figure out what works best for a happier time of the month.

For more tips on going zero waste, read the book and head to zero waste 101!


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