Two years ago I made the switch from conventional tampons to a menstrual cup. I wanted to reduce the amount of waste for which I was responsible. I also wanted to limit my exposure to the synthetic, and often harmful, chemicals associated with conventional menstrual hygiene products. The cup has been a game changer for me.

A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped cup made from medical grade silicone that collects menstrual fluid during your period. It is reusable and has a life of about five years. After each use, the cup is emptied, rinsed and re-inserted. Between periods it is sterilized.

According to 1 million women (a global movement of women fighting climate change through everyday decisions) approximately 20 pads or tampons are used by a menstruating person each month. During a menstruating person’s life (approximately 40 years’ worth of periods) about 9 600 sanitary products are used and disposed. If you multiply that by all the menstruating people on the planet imagine the amount of waste created. Not to mention the single-use plastic tampon and pad packaging which often ends up in storm water drains and eventually in the ocean.

More and more womxn are asking specifically for or about the cup

This waste can be avoided. According to Janneke Blake, the co-founder of Shop Zero, a zero waste lifestyle store in Cape Town, which stocks a variety of menstrual cups, “more and more womxn are asking specifically for or about the cup”. When it comes to choosing a menstrual cup, there are a number of options available, made in South Africa or imported. I use the Mina Cup which is locally made. With every Mina purchase, a girl or womxn in an underprivileged community (who would otherwise miss school due to lack of access to menstrual products) will receive one too.

But does the menstrual cup suit everyone? Like tampons, it may not be comfortable for some people. And besides comfort, there are cultural and social issues in a country like South Africa that need to be taken into account. I spoke to Kim Windwogel, the co-founder of Femme Projects, a non-profit organization focused on applying an intersectional approach to empowering youth on issues such as sexual education and reproductive health.

Many of our schools and homes do not have the resources for menstrual cups to be used effectively

“In SA we have many cultural issues pertaining to inserting anything into the vagina,” says Kim. “Religion, virginity testing, the myth that a menstrual cup will take your virginity, the idea that people with vaginas should not know how their anatomy works… These are all things to take into account when we look at the menstrual cup as a lasting and effective choice.”  In addition to these factors, she says that many of our schools and homes do not have the resources for menstrual cups to be used effectively. They are not equipped with running taps, flushing toilets nor the bins to dispose of bloody toilet paper. “There are a lot of issues we need to take into account,” she says.

Yet, Kim still believes that the menstrual cup is amazing and should be used when and if able. “[It’s] definitely a great resource, not only environmentally, but economically as well. Like everything else in life, I think it depends on where the user finds themselves, mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Another great option is reusable pads.

If you’re not keen on the menstrual cup there are other options that are better than conventional tampons and pads. Bakgat Period Panties are panties made from organic cotton in South Africa come in various sizes and absorbency levels. They are available on online stores such as Faithful-to-Nature and Butterfly Wings. Another great option is reusable pads. Faithful-to-Nature offers two brands, which are free of synthetic fibres, plastics or glues. They last for years at a time. These will cost more than conventional pads at the outset but will save a great deal of money (and reduce plastic) in the long run.

Those of us who have the privilege and financial means to do so, should certainly make more environmentally friendly choices when it comes to our periods.  As Kim says, “We need to take control of our menstrual hygiene management.”

Photo credit: Adobe Stock 

Ed’s note: Last month, which was Plastic Free July, Sarah promised in her column that for every piece of single-use plastic she accumulated she’ll give R5 to The Beach Co-op.  She accumulated 53 pieces of single-use plastic and donated R265 to the non-profit organization which works on curbing the rising tide of single-use plastic.