Alternatives to Disposable Menstrual Products

Flannery Stephens

Image result for tampons

Abstract             

For this project as well as my house project for Tree House, I decided to educate the people at OWU who have periods on how to reduce the waste that time of the month causes, and provide an alternative to disposable products. I did some research on the environmental hazards of pads and tampons and put the main points of my findings on a trifold to be presented at Hamwil during Green Week. I also bought 20 reusable cloth pads off of the internet to sell to anyone who was interested in taking action right there. The results were interesting: a lot of people actually seemed excited to talk about their periods and wanted to buy the pads. I ended up selling almost all of them, and then I donated the proceeds to Africa Bags to buy reusable pad kits for three girls.

Materials and Methods

The first step in this project was to do some research on just how exactly disposable pads and tampons are affecting the environment. Not a lot of information was needed: just enough to make people realize that it’s an issue, and to encourage them to take steps against it. A quick google search for “environmental impacts of periods” turned up with a few things, mostly online articles. Most of the information came from a slate.com article called “Greening the Crimson Tide- What is the Environmental Impact of my Period?”, which discusses the impacts of waste from period products in landfills. My main piece of information came from this article: people who have periods produce about 500 pounds of pad and tampon waste in their lifetimes, and that comes to about half a percent of their total lifetime trash outputs. This is a significant amount even if it seems small, because this is half the earth’s population producing 500 extra pounds of waste each. Using this point was important because it helps people realize that reducing period waste is a combined effort, and encourages them to not only take action but to encourage others to take action. Another article that was useful was a Guardian article that talked about how reducing period waste is difficult because of the taboo people have surrounding periods preventing information from getting to those who could make a change. This taboo would become an important part of the project, and affected nearly every aspect of it. I also found a few other bits and pieces of information, such as the fact that pads and tampons are usually made with non-biodegradable, non-recyclable materials and treated with toxic chemicals. Then, I researched alternatives for disposable pads and tampons, and found three main options: reusable pads, menstrual cups, and menstrual sponges. However, I already knew about these from my own experiences as a person who has periods and cares about the environment.

The next step was preparing and acquiring my materials. Since everyone in my house was preparing for their own Green Week events, it was easy to acquire a trifold and art supplies to decorate it. I put the most salient points about the environmental impacts of periods on the sides, and three alternatives to disposable products—including a fourth, free bleeding—on the bottom. I also decided to decorate it with pads and tampons, and added red paint for one thing: shock value. Considering the taboo about periods, I decided to make the board graphic and up front about what this issue is. My thought process was that by presenting this as something clearly and blatantly about periods, I could start a discussion about not only period waste, but about the societal implications of that time of the month. Note, also, the font used for the word period: another place I tried to use shock value, by making the very word period look like, well, period blood. Now, there were a few concerns I had about my presentation choices. I did wonder if this would draw people in or scare them off, because a lot of people just still aren’t ready to have real discussions about their periods. I was absolutely sure the board would scare off people who don’t have periods, mostly men, and that was actually desired: I didn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of people approaching me and immediately running off when I explained to them what the project was about. By making the trifold as graphic as possible, I figured I would be able to “filter out” anyone who would be repulsed by the idea of talking about periods and using reusable products. This includes both people who don’t have periods and some who do.

20170416_200253.jpg

Figure 1: The trifold, essentially completed

Before making the display, I had to buy the merchandise. I chose reusable pads because they are relatively cheap and easy to use. At first, I looked at a few name-brand websites, only to find that their pads were quite expensive and could not be bought in bulk. On Amazon, I found reusable pads in packs of ten for thirty dollars, which is about three dollars per pad—a decent deal. I bought two ten packs using Tree House funds. Twenty pads was the amount I chose because I didn’t think they would sell very well, but I wanted to have enough in case they did, and also because we only had enough house funds for two ten packs.

padz

Figure 2: The Merchandise.

Once Green Week came along, I was all set and ready to sell some pads. I originally planned to only sell them on Monday, because each day was themed as a level of doing something for the environment, starting with individual action on Monday and leading up to global action on Friday. Monday seemed like the best choice because what someone does with their periods is a very personal and individual choice. When people approached, my method was simple: I asked them if they wanted to know about the environmental impact of their period. Then, I explained my main points, gesturing to my trifold the whole time so they could read along. I then showed them the alternatives section of the board and asked if they were interested in reducing the waste produced by their periods. Then, I would let them choose a pad and pay however much they wanted for it.

As for where to donate the proceeds, Africa Bags was a suggestion from my roommate. I am not sure how she knew about the organization, but they looked perfect to donate the pad proceeds to. Among other charity programs, they donate reusable pads to girls in Malawi. In that country, people who have periods often miss school because they don’t have any products for it, and they fall behind. This specific program gives people pad kits that have a light, medium, and heavy flow pad as well as a pair of underwear. The organization also builds solar panels in Malawi, but I felt that donating the money for reusable pads would be more relevant.

Results

               I assumed the graphic board worked, because on Monday, a large number of people approached my station. All of the people who approached were female-presenting, but I try to avoid assuming genders (note that I also try to avoid gendering people who have periods, as having that anatomy does not necessarily mean being a woman). The people who approached were all very excited to talk about how they could reduce their period waste, and a lot of them seemed surprised by my main fact about how much waste people who have periods produce. There was only one person, out of all three days, who seemed grossed out by the project. She was also the only non-student who approached. A middle aged woman approached on Monday and started looking at the pads, and asked me what they were. “They’re reusable pads,’ I said, “for your period.” The second I said period she recoiled, raised an eyebrow, and said that that was all she needed to hear. She moved on to the other Green Week trifolds and ignored me until she left. Other than her, no one seemed grossed out by the display, which makes me think there is an age aspect to the period taboo. Are older people less willing to talk about menstruation?

On Monday, a lot of people told me they would love to buy a pad, but didn’t have any cash on them. This is why, while I originally only planned to table on Monday, I ended up tabling on Wednesday and Thursday, too. This would prove to be a great success: I sold fifteen of the pads over the entire three days, and made a little over sixty dollars (so a slight profit). In addition, one girl came back to the table on Thursday and told me some exciting news—the pads work great! A lot of customers and I agreed—periods suck, but we couldn’t wait to try out the pads. Another girl who came on Wednesday and didn’t buy a pad brought up an interesting point to me, which was that if blood in landfills can seep into groundwater, what happens to blood that is rinsed out of a reusable pad and gets washed down the drain?

All in all, over the three days I tabled, I had a lot of very positive experiences. There is a solidarity that exists between people who have periods, because it is a universally unpleasant experience, and given the opportunity, people are willing to talk about it. The girl who had her period and got to try out the pads went in depth about how absorbent they were. A few people said they didn’t have periods any more due to birth control, but said they would tell their friends about reusable pads and other alternatives to disposable period products. This is amazing news, and I hope more people at OWU are learning about how to make their periods more environmentally friendly even without me tabling.

Recommendations

In taking this project further, there are a few things that could be done. First of all, reusable pads aren’t the best alternative to disposable products. There is a question of how sanitary they are because they are supposed to just be rinsed off between uses; they can be put in the washing machine but it is impractical to do this with every use. A few people I talked to used menstrual cups, and all had very positive reviews of them. Since they cost upwards of thirty dollars, it doesn’t make sense to try and sell these during the lunch hour. One possibility that would have a major effect would be to get the Thomson store to sell reusable pads and/or menstrual cups, which would involve working with the store to find suppliers and determine prices and markups. Another way to take this project further would be to do more research on the impact of period blood being washed down the drain as well as finding more specific information about the impact of disposable products specifically concerning blood seepage into landfills and potential impacts of the chemicals used to make the products. Finally, this could also be taken in a sociological direction by studying (interviewing or surveying people?) the taboo of talking about menstruaton.

Contacts

Africabags: gives food, reusable pads, and solar panels to people in Malawi through proceeds made by selling handmade bags and other products, also provides jobs to the people.

africabags.org or contact diana@africabags.org

Appendix (this was also in my proposal)

Hospital eTool: Healthcare Wide Hazards – (Lack of) Universal Precautions. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2017, from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/hospital/hazards/univprec/univ.html#OPIM

This describes bodily fluids that can spread disease, and says any bodily fluid containing blood may spread HIV and HBV.

Spinks, R. (2015, April 27). Disposable tampons aren’t sustainable, but do women want to talk about it? Retrieved March 01, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/apr/27/disposable-tampons-arent-sustainable-but-do-women-want-to-talk-about-it

This talks about how disposable tampons, which people who have periods use 11,000 of in their lifetime, are unsustainable and often contain dangerous chemicals that the manufacturers don’t have to disclose. It also talks about why we aren’t having a conversation about reusable options.

Rastogi, N. (2010, March 16). What’s the environmental impact of my period? Retrieved March 01, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2010/03/greening_the_crimson_tide.html

This is where I started getting information, it didn’t provide much but it has some useful statistics.

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