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Be Green

Go with the Flow

Ladies and gentlemen, don't say "eww". Or actually, save the "eww" for the bit where I give you the stats on how much rubbish ends up in landfills because we girls get the monthlies.
It's been a long time coming, but I finally convinced the powers that be to let me do a piece on greener options to feminine hygiene products. I know that in today's world, despite the fact that sex seems to be everywhere, women (and men) remain extremely reluctant to talk about menstruation. Weird. Considering it's basically a symbol and measure of the reproductive health of a good half of the population! But I accept that it's culturally taboo. So I've done my best to be tasteful and really hope that everyone (boys too) will stick around and listen. Because it's important.
So why worry about tampons and pads? Well, there's these annual stats from US landfills:
- 13.5 billion pads
-- 6.5 billion tampons

Source: Franklin Associates

For some odd reason I can't seem to find Canadian stats. Has anyone seen any? Our numbers can't be too far behind. And of course, the above stats don't take into account packaging and plastic applicators (the devil! the devil!)

There are also health issues:

* Most cotton is produced using pesticides like DDT. While tampon manufacturers test your tampons to make sure there's little or no residue, who's looking out for the plants, birds, animals and cotton workers?
* Health Canada says that tampons don't necessarily contribute to Toxic Shock Syndrome. It's not understood exactly what gives you TSS. But if you've ever had it, NEVER use a tampon.
* Health Canada does say however that tampons greatly increase your risk for vaginal dryness and ulcers. This is mostly because tampons absorb your natural flora along with your blood during a period. This makes you vulnerable to all kinds of nasties including yeast infections.
* Many pads contain synthetic ingredients including plastics. I personally have had some nasty reactions to those plastic-y dri-weave ones. And of course environmentally, those plastics ain't never going away... sigh.

Next time you buy a pack of tampons or sanitary napkins, check the box for ingredients. I'll bet you money you'll never find any. Interesting because we're putting these things (for hours at a time) in a place that was designed in part to absorb stuff. I mean, that''s how babies are made, no?

Luckily, there are alternatives. And believe it or not, you might find that the best reason for switching isn't the environment or health. It's economics!


So let's start with the greenest option on the market... which happens to be the cheapest!

The DivaCup
It's a moulded silicone cup that has the approximate diameter that you'd get if you touched the tips of your index finger and your thumb (if you had average woman-sized hands!). It's modeled along the lines of The Keeper (which is made of latex and sadly, no longer available for sale in Canada). The idea is that you fold it, insert it and rotate it. It pops open and your vaginal muscles keep it in place.

Why it's a good thing:
* It eliminates all that landfill waste
* It's made in Canada
* It doesn't absorb anything--simply holds it. So your internal flora stays intact; no TSS.
* It's safe inserted for up to 12 hours! So you only have to change it twice a day if your flow allows it.
* Because you can see exactly how much you're bleeding, it helps you really know your flow. No, that's not gross. It means that it's easier to notice anomalies and be proactive about your health. If something's vastly different from usual, see your doctor.
* It lasts for 10 years and costs (drum roll please) C$40!
Even if you spend $5 a month on feminine hygiene, that saves you $560 over 10 years! Yay, money to spend on other ways to make your life better!

But isn't all that blood gross?

You know, this is kinda like that whole cloth diaper v/s disposable diaper debate. Everyone thinks it's way gross, but frankly, you're seeing the blood anyway. This way, you simply have more control. And all you ladies who are super active and travel a lot, this is a GODSEND! My globe-trotting sister got a Divacup two birthdays ago and she swears by it. Because you can leave it in for 12 hours, you'll never have to run out of a meeting mumbling something about TSS or worry about public restrooms on a long bus trip. Plus, because it's always in your travel kit, you'll never have to hunt for a tampon shop in Nigeria or convince a grumpy spouse or roommate to make a pharmacy run.! And yes, you can swim, bike, run and do just about anything that you would do with a tampon in. So no, no sex. There's a brilliant and comprehensive FAQ on the Divacup website. Check it out.
Washing instructions: Wash with soap and water (make sure to get the little holes clean... they're annoying, but they're there to prevent air locks!). Also, if you want, it's safe to boil your DivaCup to sterilize it.

What if you're a wee lass or just not into inserting stuff?

Try washable pads. They come in funky colours and are made from cotton, organic cotton, hemp or bamboo. You can buy some from Canadian-made Lunapads or even make your own if you own a sewing machine. Here are some patterns: try this style or this!
These are not your grandma's pads. Today's pads are not only cuter, they feature wings with button snaps or velcro and sometimes even an inner leakproof liner.
Price tag: The "heavy bleeding" starter kit from Lunapads will cost you around C$100
This seems awful steep until you consider that that's all you're going to pay for a decade. Compare that with $600 for regular disposables and you'll see why washables are a good idea. Plus you're being kind to the planet and cotton workers.
Cleaning: Hand or machine wash

Or Lunapanties

These are regular looking panties (heck, they even have thongs!) that have a fleece pad built in. You can use them when you're expecting your period, overnight or simply as added protection or while using another method like the Divacup or sea sponge. The brilliant thing about Lunapanties (or panties like them) is that the pad never slips and you can add layers for heavier bleeding. So you can customize your protection based on the day of your cycle. Neat, no?
Price tag: Between $22 and $26 per panty.

Note: Sometimes, it's easier to make the transition bit by bit. You can buy a pad or pair of panties a month over the course of a year while you use up your current stash of disposables. Or list it as a birthday or wedding prezzie on your registry.

Sea Sponges
These are little living sea creatures that you can use just as you would a tampon. Not great for the creatures, it's true. Many animal rights activists and vegans may balk at the idea of killing itty beasties for this purpose, but consider this: It's comfy, the sponges are sustainably farmed (this is VERY IMPORTANT) and they will biodegrade when you eventually chuck them.
Price tag: $10-$13 for 2 sponges. Each sponge lasts between 3 and 5 cycles, so unless you use them together, you're good for 8-10 months.
Cleaning: Wash with soap and water. Soak overnight (and at the end of your period) in water with a few drops of tea tree oil.

Not ready to ditch the disposables? Do the next best thing:

You can find Natracare brand pads, liners and tampons at most health food stores now. I've even seen them at pharmacies. These pads are:
* Certified organic (by UK-based Soil Association)
* Lined with plant-based and biodegradable bioplastic
* Free of chlorine bleach
* Just like regular pads or tampons

Varies, but tends to be around 30% higher than regular pads and tampons.

Let's take a look at what the monthlies are likely to cost you over 10 years:
DivaCup: $40
Washable Pads (heavy bleeding starter kit): $100
Sustainable Sea Sponge Tampons: $150
Regular Disposables: $600 (at $5 a month)
Organic Disposables: $780 (approx)

Choosing what's best for you:

If you're a:
Heavy bleeder, has had sex: The Divacup is your best friend, hands down. It offers superior protection for longer despite heavier flow.
Heavy bleeder, young or with hymen intact: Washable pads. It's worth experimenting with thicknesses and lengths just as you would with regular disposables.
Light bleeder/on the Pill: Any of the green options should work for you. Sponges tend not to be able to absorb huge amounts of flow (although you can use two at a time on days one and two). But since you don't bleed too heavily, you can mix and match.
Not bleeding yet, but expecting your period any day now: Divacup, pad, lunapanties.

Interesting facts:
* Menstrual cups have been around since the 1930s.
* Menstrual cups have been cleared by both the FDA and Health Canada
* Both the Keeper and DivaCup offer a 3 month trial period (hah, no pun intended). So you literally have nothing to lose. Buy one, use it. If you hate it, send it back for a full refund!

Where to buy:
Many health food stores now sell the DivaCup. The Keeper isn't unfortunately available in Canada, but if you don't have a latex allergy and prefer its shape, perhaps you can have a friend in the US ship it to you.
If you're in Montreal, here are some wonderful stores to check out. The staff there will help you make the best and greenest choice for you:

* The Co-op du Grand Orme: This is a new co-op in St Anne de Bellevue. It's run by Veronique Vendette, my amazing guest tonight. She was doing Divacup workshops way before it became cool!
* Co-op la Maison Verte in NDG
* La Loba if you're on the Plateau or in Villeray

(If you have a place near you to recommend, send me the details and I'll add it to the list)

Okay, that's it from me. I've presented you with the facts and what I know from using these items first hand. But everyone's different. Please, join the conversation and share your own stories of switching to greener menstrual products. Or tell me why you can't/won't make the switch. What's holding you back? Leave me a comment or call our Talkback line: (514) 597-5626

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Comments (17)

Fran├žois Beauchemin


Congratulations on your story! It's amazing to see the impact of this kind of product on the health of women and on the health of the planet ! My girlfriend has already switched to a greener option : she's using the diva cup - and I have to say, as a concerned man about the environnement, that we should use all the options and alternatives we have to reduce our footprint on the planet.
Again, congratulations to all your team working with you to make those kind of 'reportage' possible.

Posted January 26, 2009 08:50 PM

Alishia B.


Fantastic.. you really made my day ! Finally someone who has the guts to tell it like it is.
I've been using tampons for a long time. Since I swim often, it seems like it was the best option for that 'special' week of the month. Maybe now, I'll consider the diva cup.
Thanks so much for all your advice. Watching your segment really makes me think that there's a lot we could do to change things around us.
Go girl !

Posted January 26, 2009 08:54 PM

K Koza


Geeta thanks for pulling the plug on this green, red and unsightly issue.

Posted January 26, 2009 09:06 PM

C Gladu


Well, it's about (harhar) bloody time!! Thanks for covering this topic... Sucks to imagine that people (adults?) consider this topic 'icky'... Lots of great info here, I bet a lot of people didn't realize there are such convenient options out there.

Posted January 26, 2009 09:19 PM

N Sajnani


This is an incredibly important topic and I am so glad that Geeta and CBC have taken the initiative to emphasize the ecological side of a very normal, and not to be hidden, phenomenon. I did know about a few of the options presented but not all. Thanks!

Posted January 26, 2009 10:17 PM

b holleran


finally! i've waited and hoped that someone would speak out for environmentally friendly feminine hygiene. Thanks, geeta, for such a straight- forward, realistic, and thorough report. it's helped me make my decision as i'm sure it will help many others. And not to forget- cheers to the cbc for supporting this!

Posted January 26, 2009 11:51 PM

A Colby


It's refreshing to see you take on this topic, especially since it affects the health and well-being of us all. Those stats are mind-boggling, though not surprising. Thank you Geeta and CBC for also taking time to address the concerns of many women. Even if some might find it difficult to talk about, it is so important to have the information about the green options available to us in Canada.

Posted January 27, 2009 11:23 AM

B Lee


Thank you, Geeta, for giving us the full report on ecological menstrual products. As a recent convert to the Diva Cup - took me 10 years - I can attest that my newly-waste-free periods make me feel like such a responsible citizen. Small acts ARE important, especially when they happen every month for forty years of a woman's life!

Posted January 27, 2009 08:43 PM

G Lussier


Thank you Geeta for the fantastic report! I am looking forward to a Part 2 in the near future perhaps? I think that many women have no idea of what alternatives exist or what kind of effects the menstrual products they use have on them and the environment.This kind of TV segment is so relevant and desperately needed! Thanks again Geeta and the CBC!

Posted January 28, 2009 10:40 PM

Alison P


Geeta! Great piece. I don't seem to be a cup friendly body. I've tried the Keeper(about 8 years ago) and the Diva (in the last 6 months) and they just don't work out for me. However, I never knew about the sponges! I have considered making my own pads but its just so much easier to go disposible...I KNOW! I'm evil! I will endeavor to do better.
Thank you very much for the information. Most women do not know the resources that are beyond the local shop shelves and it great to have more mainstream awareness on the subject.

Posted January 29, 2009 10:23 AM

Carol C.


I'm glad someone has brought this up. I found out about the Diva Cup only last year. I'm probably still good for another ten years only, but better late than never. I just want to say that in the beginning, it was not easy for me to use it efficiently, but I talked to others and finally got the hang of it. I encourage those who find it difficult to talk to someone who is used to it or maybe their doctor.

Posted January 30, 2009 07:33 PM

Baby Ju


Charming piece! Not an easy topic to approach lightly.

I used to use a Keeper and now I know there is a new alternative. Another area of one's life to address in the long road away from everyday toxins. Thanks CBC.

Posted January 30, 2009 07:43 PM

C Chateauguay


How wonderful ! Thank you Geeta for bringing this to our attention... Having the option presented to you is the first step in making significant change in your life.
That's the fun part about your segment - we always feel like we have learned something new.
Thank you and your team,

Posted February 4, 2009 03:15 PM

Namrata N


I'm so glad that this is a topic of discussion. As someone who is slowly accepting responsibility for my impact on the environment, it is really great to have a source of information such as this one to refer to.

Well done to the CBC for presenting a platform for this important issue. I hope there are more to come!

Posted February 5, 2009 04:46 PM

kimm fuller


Geeta what a great idea! There is not enough "green" understanding or recognition in this area. You are just phenomenal at bringing on the eco-info. Thank you so much!

Posted February 11, 2009 01:52 PM

Mrs Music


Thanks, Geeta, for this article! I didn't know that something like the DivaCup exists, but I am sure it's exactly the right thing for me! (I used a diaphragm for many years, so the concept is familiar.) I'll try it as soon as I can!

Posted February 11, 2009 03:42 PM

Amanda F


I have been using terricloth pads for about 10 years now (can't bring myself to try the cup...) and I love them. They irritate less and everything. They cost less so why not use them? I am so glad that you made this report because I have been speaking to other women about them for years but always felt like I was weird. Now I feel better!

Geeta says: Thanks Amanda! I know EXACTLY how you feel. We no longer have to feel odd about helping our sisters find more sustainable ways to celebrate their womanhood.

Posted March 4, 2009 01:59 PM

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