Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Gentlemen of a delicate disposition: look away now

Having come a long way since 17th century‘s superstitious associations with witchcraft, monthly segregation and downright fear, I hope today we can talk about ladies’ calendars without too much embarrassment.
picture: 1920's Kotex advert, Museum of Menstruation and Woman's Health
A while ago, I was at my favourite Turkish restaurant in London and when I visited the loo I spotted an advert for something called the mooncup. It was a bit intriguing because, while they were obviously selling a feminine hygiene product, it wasn’t very clear how it worked. So I went online and discovered quite a following for a washable, re-usable silicone cup created as an alternative to disposable tampons.
So, let me see if I get this right: I am feeling a bit fragile; my head hurts despite the 2 Nurofens I took earlier to alleviate back pain and cramps; bright light makes my eyes sting, and now the convenience of having a modern, clean, disposable sanitary product is being taken away from me? Really? You want to introduce a negative element to what is already, excuse the pun, a bloody annoying day? What’s next? We’re saying goodbye to Durex and embracing goats’ bladder
At this point I must say I am reliably informed that plenty of women out there think nothing of menstruation and hardly notice the smooth arrival of their light, pain-free, happy periods. Well, that’s super for them, but unfortunately I’m not one of the lucky ones and I’ve been eagerly awaiting menopause since I was 12.
For the sake of the Ethically Challenged, however, I discussed the cup with some friends. I didn’t find anyone who’s already using it, but apparently this is a well known product and not everybody seems as horrified by it as I am.
And so I started thinking for the first time in my life of the environmental impact of feminine hygiene.
At the risk of digressing a bit here, I thought I’d share with you a few interesting facts I found during my research into the curse of the impure gender:

http://chartyourcycle.wordpress.com/
So, to the facts: How much damage to the environment do all those imaginatively named products cause? 
The main culprits are:
  • The plastic lining of sanitary towels. As you’ll have learned in my earlier entry about carrier bags, most plastic is not biodegradable.
  • Tampons are made almost entirely of cotton, which is hardly an environmentally-friendly culture. It is responsible for 16% of the consumption of pesticides worldwide. According to a UN study of 2005, 2.6% of the global water use is dedicated to growing cotton.
  • Again the plastic: this time in the form of tampon applicators and packaging. 
In America, it is estimated that all this absorbing industry is responsible for 0.5% of landfill occupation.
More worryingly, the market for industrialised tampons is still practically negligible in many developing countries. I don’t know how much of it is due to cultural factors. But if the barrier is simply an economical one, then as the population of developing countries become more affluent, this number is going to grow a lot.
Looking at the entire lifecycles of these products, however, I’m not convinced their impact justifies what for me would be an enormously difficult change in habit. According to this Swedish study, the main impact caused by tampons is the use of fossil fuels during manufacturing, as opposed to disposal. Another finding that takes tampons off the hook a little bit is that sanitary pads are twice as harmful to the environment.

Is this knowledge sufficient to convert me to the cup or washable pads?
To find out, let me describe what a typical sustainable period experience would be like for me. Imagine a winter day in London:
1. Stop at Waterloo station to take my train and realise I need to use the loo;
2. Enter the tiny, not exactly immaculately clean cubicle;
3. Find somewhere to hang: coat, handbag, laptop carrier, gloves, scarf, hat, umbrella;
4. Use very limited space and get into undignified position to remove the cup;
5. I’m not sure what I’d do at this point. Do I carry a spare cup in my bag? Or do I:
6. Go cup-commando and leave the cubicle, balancing: coat, handbag, laptop carrier, gloves, scarf, hat, umbrella and a silicone cup full of menstrual blood?
8. Approach public sink and nonchalantly start washing away said blood.
And how exactly do I react to the horrified look of anyone who has the misfortune of using the sink next to me? I live in London. Have you ever met an English person? Don’t get me wrong. I love this country and have adopted it as my home with enthusiastic delight, but the natives can be awkward in social situations. To be frank, I'd also very much object to intimate hygiene rituals taking place in public spaces.
So, cup washed – we’re assuming the public toilet in question has not run out of liquid soap – and there we go again, back to the cubicle, to insert the cup back in, again juggling coat, bag... you know how this goes.
I do not want to imagine the reaction of work colleagues when I am caught rinsing my cup at the office.

Of course there is an importan health concern associated with toxic shock syndrome, which may make the mooncup ideal for some women. Lifestyles are also different, and perhaps yours is suitable for this kind of product.
But before recurring to drastic changes, there are a few choices that could help reducing your menstrual footprint:
  • Buy products in bulk to reduce packaging.
  • Use tampons that come without the plastic applicator – being of an olden-times generation, this is a recently new technology for me anyway, the use of which I never quite mastered.
  • Look for organic cotton products.
  • Pick more efficient, higher absorbency products.
A 0.5% of landfill occupation and the use of non biodegradable plastic are still a significant impact. However, this blog is written from a consumer’s point of view, and as a consumer, I find the idea of re-usable feminine care products hugely clumsy, uncomfortable, impractical and time consuming. Unless we’re at arm's length reach of environmental Apocalypse, I would not consider giving up on the good old Tampax, Always & co. And even then, I’d resign myself to disappearing from view for a few days every month and conducting all my businesses immersed in a warm bath, in a female, modern day Marat.
Until then, the most natural approach I can recommend to your ladies' blues is an afternoon nap and a few drops of Agnus Castus. They really do work and have saved me from the bonfire a few times.
picture: Son of The South website

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