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It’s plastic free July - so we’re exploring one of our favourite topics - periods without plastic. Did you know how much plastic there is in menstrual products? We explore our first alternative, menstrual cups and hear directly from those using them.

A few months back we covered how talking about periods is coming back into mainstream - whether it's a backlash from the fixed squeaky clean image all women are supposed to conform to, greater coverage in the media about the 'tampon tax' or social media meaning those high school conversations are now out there in the open for all to search for and find solace in - talking about periods is here to stay.

And that's why we're talking about it *again* - this time looking at the environmental aspect of periods, across 3 separate blogs well explore biodegradable and reusable menstrual products.

Did you know that there is often a lot of plastic in the menstrual products we use? In fact pads are 90% plastic - that ends up in landfill or worse clogging up our water system and then our seas and rivers. Many applicators included with tampons are solid plastic and end up on our beaches.

There are often toxic chemicals in these products too including carcinogens, neurotoxins and irritants. And we put them up our vaginas! Euw - no thanks!* 

Remember, "the average woman will use 12,000 to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products in her lifetime and it can take up to 100 years or more for something like a plastic pad or applicator to break down"

For more on the 'environmenstrual' movement - listen to comedy podcast Sustainabble, where two British blokes get their heads round periods.

But do not despair - there are alternatives out there - including biodegradable alternatives, reusable pads and reusable menstrual cups. We're going to tackle them one by one - this week - the menstrual cup.

The Menstrual Cup

The menstrual cup is a silicon or latex cup that collects menstrual blood during your period. Every 4-12 hours depending on your flow you empty it out, give it a rinse and replace. At the end of your period you sterilise it for at least 5 minutes and store away until next month. Menstrual cups can last for years and can be a more economical solution to pads and tampons. There tend to be 2 sizes available, the larger size for those who have had children. They cost on average €31/£25/$55 AUD

You might be familiar with brands like Mooncup, Diva Cup, Lunette, Flo Cup etc. But what you might not realise is that the cup design has been around since the 1860s! In the USA, prototypes of the catamenial sacks were patented - take a look at Lunette's blog for some interesting diagrams. But it wasn't until the 1930s that a rubber latex cup was brought to the American market by actress Leona Chalmers - it re-emerged in the 50s as Tassette but society was not ready for it and it folded in the 60s (pun intended). The Keeper emerged in the US in 1987 and Mooncup emerged in 1999 in the UK. In the last decade a multitudes of other brands have shot up to meet the growing demand in this market.

And some good marketing campaigns too - check out this Mooncup ad that had us all chuckling

But enough about the history and the facts - what is using one actually like?

We asked two women: one a mum and long time user, the other is very new to the cup.

Hannah, 31, mother of 1

What made you first curious about trying a menstrual cup?

It was mainly due to the environmental impact of tampons and pads. We live by the sea and regularly find tampons during beach-cleans, which helps to highlight the issue. While I hadn’t flushed my tampons for years, the idea of cutting down on the processing waste and not contributing to landfill was a big motivator. I had also become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of so intimately ‘wearing’ something made using god-knows-what chemicals, and being free of this was a relief.

How long were you thinking about it before you bought it?

I used to have the notion that they were really niche, so it was a while. When my periods came back after breastfeeding it was a good time to re-evaluate - I did a bit of research, which put my mind at rest about the practicality of a cup.

What's it like compared to what you were using it for?

Frankly, wrapping and binning a tampon is unpleasant, so I don’t find the cup more squeamish. In many ways it’s more convenient – no getting caught out having forgotten a spare tampon. You also get much more familiar with your body and its rhythms.

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What would you say to someone who was thinking about trying it?

Go for it! With the caveat that if I had recently started having periods I would have been too intimidated to give it a go. Tampons were scary enough back then. You do have to be pretty comfortable with your body as there is more involvement than applicator tampons or pads, but after having a baby I’m well over being bothered by that. There was a bit of trial-and-error concerning positioning, and I find I need to wear a panty liner as well, but just one for the day and one at night so I have still cut back hugely on waste. I would advise women to stick with it, give it a chance, and remember how weird it was when you first started using tampons. This is no weirder than that!

Lindsay is new to the cup, she used to use non-applicator tampons.

What made you first curious about trying a menstrual cup?

My increasing awareness of the problem of waste in the world, and trying to find ways I can modify choices to help this. The cup was a cost-effective, waste-free alternative to tampons and I’d heard lots of positive experiences about it.

How long were you thinking about it before you bought it?

I probably became aware of them over a year ago before I actually got one.

What product are you using now?

I have the Mooncup. It wasn’t a conscious decision to get that one. I was at an eco-market and they were selling them there. I kept meaning to get one online but forgetting so decided to get it there and then before yet another cycle came and went!

What's it like compared to what you were using it for?

It definitely takes some getting used to. Tampons are so reliable and fuss free for me, and it is a little tricky to master inserting it the first few times. Also I think we are so conditioned to see periods as embarrassing or dirty, which is quite ridiculous, but it was unusual to actually SEE the blood. I imagine a few months in you really get to know your cycle though.

What would you say to someone who was thinking about trying it?

Go for it and give it a try. They hold more than a tampon, you never have to worry about running out! And if we can make one small change to help our world, why wouldn’t you? You have nothing to lose!

Menstrual Cup tips

There's quite a variety to choose from these days - to meet different shapes and variations in our bodies.

It can take some getting used to, have a look at Sarah Tran's video where she explains a method it took for 4 cycles to work out was best for her

Keeping it clean - here's a nifty tip we've just discovered while researching for this blog

Here are some more very down to earth tips from Science She Wrote

Menstrual cups aren't for everyone

Converters to the menstrual cup are often keen to shout about how great they are (myself included here) but it is worth noting that they may not be for everyone. Some people have allergies to latex and silicon, others might be using an IUD, recently given birth or had gynecological surgery etc.

Andrea Nielsen-Vold of Go With The Flow Hawke’s Bay adds; "You know what? You have to get REALLY up close and personal with your body when you use a cup. Like RIGHT IN THERE. And for many reasons, not everyone is OK with that. Then there’s the issue of finding the right size and firmness. I’m personally onto my third cup. Learning about my body has been great, but I know it’s because of my own privilege that I’ve been able to do so. Maybe the standard ‘Over 25 and/or had children’ size works for you, but I can tell you now, that does not work for everyone. I use a small cup designed for virgin teenage menstruators but I’m 33 and have had two children."

So that's all we've got time for on the menstrual cup today - we'd love to hear your thoughts on it as well. And if you're curious we hope this information and straight talk will help you make a decision.

Next time we'll explore reusable pads.


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