The benefits of reusable menstrual products

A closeup of a hand holding a pink diva cup against a blue background.

(Karolina Grabowska/Pexels License)

Related Topics:
Storyfest 2023

Disposable, single-use period products are the most accessible kind of menstrual products for most people across the globe. Since the vast majority of people with a uterus have a period, the constant use of these kinds of products results in the production of so much waste over such a short period of time. However, these kinds of single-use products are not the only option for dealing with periods. Products like menstrual cups and discs, reusable pads, and period underwear can all serve as replacements for their disposable counterparts.

Although there are some notable drawbacks to these sustainable options, they are overall much better for the environment, and anyone who can afford to make the switch should do so. My story seeks to address the differences between single-use and reusable menstrual products, and to encourage menstruators to make the switch to more sustainable options by unpacking their benefits and drawbacks.

Full transcript below:

Lisa Steingberg: Think about the last time you walked into your local supermarket. As you were walking through, did you pass the aisle labeled, “Period Care?”  Did you see the seemingly endless kinds of menstrual products that line the wall?

I’m Lisa Steinberg, a student from SUNY College of environmental science and forestry in Syracuse New York.  Today, I’m here to talk about the problems with single use menstrual products when compared to reusable ones. On any given day, approximately 800 million people are menstruating. That’s about 10% of the entire world.  Imagine the waste that’s produced every day as 800 million people rely on single use period products like the ones you see in stores. In one lifetime, the average menstruator can create 300 pounds or more of waste in single use period products.

When you consider the materials these products are made of, this already frightening statistic becomes even worse. Pads can contain up to 90% plastic that will be left to sit in landfills, taking anywhere from 500 to 800 years to fully decompose. Tampons, on the other hand, can biodegrade in about six months but this process is lengthen by plastic packaging and other plastics within the tampon themselves.  Not only will these materials sit in landfills for hundreds of years, but the creation of these products causes significant amount of mineral and fossil fuel depletion.  And plastic packaging often causes pollution of beaches in oceans and subsequently the deaths of birds and other wildlife.

When considering how readily available single use products are, it’s not hard to see why people might prefer those over reusable options. Like I mentioned before, they’re are seemingly unlimited brand, type, and size options at nearly every store you walk into. With so many possibilities right in front of them, it makes sense that most people wouldn’t bother to look for a more sustainable option. It doesn’t help that many people are uneducated about this topic too. In a lot of places discussions of periods and menstruation are still considered to be taboo, something to be kept private. When people aren’t able to have proper discussions about this, they remain uninformed about their choices and habits.

To put this idea to a test, I conducted a small online survey with around 30 college-aged young adults to determine their overall awareness of different mental products and their accessibility. While pretty much everyone had heard of the more common products like pads, tampons, and menstrual cups; awareness of products like menstrual discs, reusable pads, and period underwear was much lower.  Not only that, but the majority of people surveyed regularly use single use products as opposed to reusable once as they seem to be either unaware of alternative options, nervous to test them out, or lack the means for the sustainable counterparts. To further my understanding of this, I was able to interview two students here at SUNY-ESF, Kat Resanovich who uses reusable products, and Thea Vallicelli who uses single use ones. When I asked Kat when and why she made the switch to reusable products, she gave me some really interesting insight into her decision.

Kat Resanovich: It was probably two and a half years ago, somewhere around there. That was because I knew that period waste was really bad and I was trying to be more sustainable. I that it would be cheaper in the long run. Like, obviously it’s more expensive upfront, but after a while it’s a lot cheaper. And also once I tried them, they were, like, way more comfortable. I liked them way better than normal disposal period products. So that’s why.

LS: Thea, on the other hand, has had very different experiences. Since she uses tampons almost exclusively, I asked her if she’s ever considered switching to a more sustainable option.

Thea Vallicelli:  I’ve considered making the switch from, like, a single used reusable period products, but admittedly they seem messier and scarier so I haven’t considered it too heavily. It just hasn’t come up naturally.

LS: Moving on, I asked Kat what some of the drawbacks of her reusable products might be. Unsurprisingly she couldn’t seem to think of many problems with her reusable pads.

KR: So the only drawbacks that I can think of is just that, like, you have to do the extra thing of washing them. But I just threw them in with my regular laundry so it’s not really a big deal to me. Some people complain that, like, they’re smelly but I don’t think that they’re any more smelly than, like, other normal disposable products. So I really don’t think there is any drawbacks. I like them so much better. They’re so much better.

LS: When I asked Thea if they had any additional comments to share, they had some insight as to why other people may be hesitant to make the switch.

TV: Yeah, I feel like a lot of people don’t, like, take that step forward to use reusable products mostly because they seem scarier. It’s a new move and it’s not always easy.

LS: Like Thea and Kat both mentioned, reusable magical products can be a bit daunting.  The upfront cost of purchasing these products can be a lot, especially for those that don’t have the privilege of being able to easily afford them.  These products are an investment, so they cost a bit more at first than your standard package of pads or tampons. But since you don’t need to repurchase them every month, they ultimately end up being much less expensive in the long run. 

In Thea’s interview, they mentioned that they were hesitant to make the switch to a more sustainable option because they seem messier and scarier. This seems to be a common belief, held by a lot of people who use single use products. The idea of a reusable pad or a pair of period underwear seems dirty and unhygienic to some people, but in reality, as long as you have access to running water and are washing them regularly, they’re no dirtier than a disposable pad. Take Kat’s word for it. This idea that they’re messy and unclean stems from a lack of proper education about these products.  If we can stop these thoughts at the source and increase awareness about these products, this would almost definitely become a non-issue.

Once you get passed the learning curve associated with menstrual cup and disk application application, they can be really easy to use and the environmental benefits of choosing these products over pads or tampons make them more than try for anyone who can afford them. They’re also hypoallergenic and are much less likely to cause health issues like toxic shock syndrome than standard tampons, so really they aren’t that scary after all. Overall there aren’t many downfalls of reusable natural products. Like any other period product you can use, for the first time there’s definitely a bit of an associated learning curve. Other than that, the main drawbacks are the initial price and the maintenance requirements. 

But if you can afford to spend a bit of extra money upfront, you’ll save a lot of money in the long run and decrease your waste dramatically as long as you have access to running water.  Maintenance should be no harder than boiling water or running a lot of laundry. To me, that seems like a small price to pay to live life a little bit more sustainably.

How do you move the planet forward?
Submit Story
awareness, menstrual care, periods, public education, public health, reusables, single-use, sustainability

Get the Newsletter

Get inspiring stories to move the planet forward in your inbox!

Success! You have been added to the Planet FWD newsletter. Inspiring stories will be coming to your inbox soon.