Plastic Monday: Sarah and Tracy Talk Green Feminine Products

Submitted by aatkins on November 21, 2011

OK, ladies, let’s go there.

(Gentlemen, I’d tell you to look away, but this is important information for the women you care about, too.)

Over 12 billion single-use tampons make their way to landfills each year. One look at the feminine hygiene section of your local drugstore will tell you that most women’s tampon of choice in the US is individually packaged in plastic, with a plastic, single-use applicator.

Plastic + single use + easy-to-find, non-plastic alternative = Stupid Plastic.

Then there’s the fact that these items are also bleached with chlorine—the manufacture of which creates dioxin, a known carcinogen. WHY anyone would require a little piece of cotton and rayon that’s pretty much going to spend its entire lifespan “where the sun doesn’t shine” to be sparkly white instead of a natural-looking beige is beyond me, but just about every mainstream tampon company bleaches its products. And the same stupid plastic and bleaching concerns hold true for pads, as well.

I used to feel rather pleased with myself because I went to the trouble of using unbleached, plastic-free, organic cotton tampons and pads from an eco-friendly company. (Natracare, in my case.) I was well aware of the reusable feminine care alternatives on the market, but I have to confess, trying those out wasn’t a green step I was ready to take.

I’m a busy working mom who’s constantly on the go. In addition to my work at Green America, I volunteer to lead several of my daughters’ after-school activities and teach the occasional writing course. I simply didn’t believe I had time to deal with the mess and hassle of reusable pads and tampons. Plus, I’m embarrassed to admit I was a bit squeamish.

In the past several months, several things have happened to change my mind about trying reusable tampons and pads.


  1. Several friends and coworkers, each completely out of the blue, told me that reusable menstrual cups like the Keeper, the Moon Cup, the Diva Cup, and the Lunette are, once a month, the best thing that ever happened to them. One friend who’s an avid hiker and frequent traveler says the Diva Cup saved her life when she was hiking in Egypt and Jordan. Others swear that they’ll never go back to pads, because of the ease, convenience, and money savings of these sturdy reusables.
  2. Our summer intern Kara Turtinen wrote a wonderful profile in the upcoming 2012 National Green Pages (which should be hitting your mailboxes any day now!) on Lunapads, and I got to read the inside story of this wonderful, women-owned, truly green company. The article made me realize that if I just gave reusables a try, the extra, up-front cost I’d been balking at could support a company that walks its green talk in all ways. (Lunapads even donates thousands of reusable pads to girls in developing countries, who often are forced to miss school when they have their periods due to a lack of feminine hygiene products.) And it’ll save me money in the long run over buying disposables every month. GladRags is another popular Green America Green Business Network member offering reusable pads.
  1. Julia Schopick from the Keeper told me about You Are Loved, a nonprofit started by Lisa Elifritz, who lost her 20-year-old daughter Amy a year and a half ago to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). This rare but often deadly blood-poisoning disease is directly linked to disposable tampon use, particularly the rayon fibers left behind by disposables. Reading about Lisa’s poignant story of living through a mother’s worst nightmare made me realize that I want to start my two daughters off right when they reach puberty. And the only way to convince them to avoid disposable tampons from the get-go is if I can lead by example.

So, I’m making the leap. Below is an email conversation I had with Green America senior writer Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist, who convinced me that reusable menstrual cups really are better than disposable tampons.

TRACY: You’ve been using reusable menstrual cups and pads for awhile now. What got you to make the switch?

SARAH: I’d been thinking about and hearing about menstrual cups like The Diva Cup and The Keeper for years , and had many friends (mostly at Green America—always ahead of the curve on all things green!) who swore by them. I was about to get my first Diva Cup when I got pregnant with my first child, which was the beginning of 4 years of being pregnant and/or breastfeeding (with only two cycles between the return of menstruation and my second pregnancy). Finally my period came back a few months ago (my second child was 19 months old) and I was ready to get my first Diva Cup. And by then, my reasons had actually changed a bit. There were the things you’ve talked about above—I wanted to avoid the chlorine of conventional tampons, and all the waste—the plastic, the paper, the boxes, and the money I was spending on all of these period supplies! But as silly as this might sound, after becoming a mother, there was also an almost spiritual aspect to it—not wanting to sully this now-sacred and hard working part of my body with chemicals and, as you call it Tracy, stupid plastic.

TRACY: So, I think the thing that has stopped me most from using a natural latex or silicone menstrual cup is the thought of needing to empty it in a public restroom. I REALLY don’t want to be washing one of them out in a sink in front of a bunch of strangers!

SARAH: Oh come on, you can make some new friends! But really, it’s not a big deal. I read a great tip online—most of us usually have a reusable water bottle on us at all times these days. It’s easy to just give your cup a little rinse with your water while in the bathroom stall. Or I will just use a little piece of toilet paper or a wet paper towel to give it a wipe, and follow up with a better cleanse when I’m at home.

TRACY: They look like hard little plungers—ow. Do they hurt? Do they feel uncomfortable when you’re exercising or chasing after your kids?

SARAH: I don’t even notice it!

TRACY: I keep picturing how one might have to do all sorts of horrible acrobatics trying to get them in place. Is it hard to learn how to use them?

SARAH: Just like with tampons, there’s definitely a learning curve in terms of finding the best way to insert the cup—they each come with directions that include different options, and there are whole online communities dedicated to helping women use menstrual cups, so you’re sure to find something that works easily for you.

TRACY: How long can you leave them in place?

SARAH: Depending on my flow, I’ve gone anywhere from 2-10 hours.

TRACY: What have been the biggest advantages for you?

SARAH: I love not having to buy stuff! I have one Diva Cup and a few Lunapads, and that’s it! I’m done spending money on menstrual supplies for YEARS! I also love not having to bring tampons and pads with me when I leave the house. And of course, knowing that I’m not using toxic chemicals in or on my body feels great.

TRACY: Any disadvantages?

SARAH: The only disadvantage I can think of is that I am really disorganized, and the Diva Cup is an investment that I don’t want to lose. I did misplace it for a while after a trip, but eventually found it (cleaned and in the storage bag that comes with it!) at the bottom of my bag. Just make sure you clean it well and tuck it away somewhere safe at the end of your cycle!

TRACY: Anything else you’d want tell our blog visitors who might be on the fence about using reusable feminine products?

SARAH: If you use Kotex tampons, you might want to check the product number on the box. Kimberly-Clark is recalling about 1,400 cases of tampons because of contamination with a bacterium that could cause dangerous infections.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the recalled tampons were “manufactured with a raw material contaminated with a bacterium, Enterobacter sakazakii, which may cause health risks, including vaginal infections, urinary tract infections, pelvic inflammatory disease or infections that can be life-threatening.” The FDA cautions that women with underlying health problems, cancer or immune-compromised conditions like HIV are at increased risk of infection.

So far, Kimberly-Clark has not received any reports of illness linked to the products.

The recall includes 18-count and 36-count boxes of Kotex Natural Balance Security tampons (unscented, regular absorbency), which were shipped between Oct. 29 and Nov.  2, 2011, to Walmart, Fry’s and Smith’s stores in eight states: Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.

Not all stores in the affected states received recalled products, the company said, and those that did were alerted to remove the products from their shelves. For a list of the specific lots that were recalled and the stores that received them, go to the Kimberly-Clark website or click here.


Since Sarah and I had our e-mail chat, I’ve made the switch to the Keeper, a natural latex menstrual cup, and I’ll never go back!

Have you tried any reusable feminine care products? (One we didn’t discuss here: Jade and Pearl sells tampon alternatives made of sea sponges!) What did you like about them? If you haven’t made the leap yet, what’s stopping you?

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