Once a month (Puerto Rico)

YRE Competition 2020

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What things happen once a month? We usually see the full moon once a month. Some people get their salary once a month. But do you know what happens to all women once a month? Menstruation, our period. This topic has always been a taboo in our society. Talking about menstruation is never something we feel comfortable with, and discussing all the menstrual waste we produce in just a few days each month, can be even harder. According to the United Nations (UN), on average, women who use menstrual pads are equivalent to 60 kilograms of waste from this product during their lifetime. We can infer that tons and tons of menstrual pads and tampons end up in our landfills daily. Currently, there are more sustainable, economic, and healthy alternatives that allow us to avoid disposable menstrual products.

The Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), organization created in 1995, has the mission of amplifying women’s voices to eliminate the toxic chemicals that harm our health and communities. According to this organization, research shows that many of today’s menstrual and vaginal care products contain a host of chemicals that may cause cancer, disrupt hormones, or cause unnecessary allergic reactions. Some of these chemicals include styrene, chloromethane, chloroethane, chloroform, among others. More alarming, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)— the USA government agency responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human drugs, biological products, and medical devices— does not require companies to test for all harmful chemicals. Moreover, the FDA does not require manufacturers to disclose ingredients to consumers. This situation presents a serious problem considering that the skin of the genitalia area tends to be thinner and more absorbent than other parts of the body, making it a sensitive area. The regulation of the chemicals used in menstrual products is crucial since they remain in contact with external genitalia for extended periods allowing the absorption of possibly harmful chemicals into the reproductive system.

In recent years, the topic of reducing single-use plastics has been a worldwide trend. Still, when it comes to this topic, disposable menstrual products are never mentioned and often not even considered a source of single-use plastic. The reality is that most disposable menstrual products contain a large percentage of plastics. Tampons usually are made from cotton or rayon, but sometimes include a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part and an outer layer of synthetic fiber (polyethylene and polypropylene) to prevent fiber loss and create a smoother surface, according to Elizabeth Peberdy, a researcher at the Anglia Ruskin University. They are also wrapped in plastic and come with their plastic applicator. On the other hand, Peberdy establishes that the menstrual pads are made up of various layers: a permeable top layer made of a polymer such as polypropylene or polyethylene; an absorbent layer made of cellulose; an inner core of “superabsorbent polymer” or “smart foam” and a lower layer of polyethylene. Due to the complexity of the materials with which these products are made, it is estimated that a regular menstrual pad or tampon can take 500–800 years to break down in landfills. According to Peberdy, these estimations of degradation are based on respirometry tests in lab conditions. In reality, what actually happens to these products in landfill could be very different, referring to the possibility that there are materials that, by their nature, cannot be decomposed under landfill conditions.

Starting from the fact that 1.9 billion women globally are in their menstruating age, we should divert our attention to more sustainable and eco-friendly ways to manage our period. On average, women spend 2,400 days throughout a lifetime dealing with menstrual blood flow. This is equivalent to six and a half years. The most common eco-friendly friendly product options are organic tampons and menstrual pads, reusable pads, menstrual cups, and period underwear. Organic pads and tampons are made of organic cotton so that they can be composted. They can also be discarded with regular garbage since organic cotton decomposes much faster than the materials of regular disposable options. Reusable options such as the menstrual cup, reusable pads, and period underwear have the advantage of lasting for years. Pads and underwear last 3 to 5 years, with proper care, and usually are made of natural fibers such as cotton and bamboo. On the other hand, the menstrual cup is made with medical-grade silicone and usually lasts from 3 to 10 years, depending on the brand. Despite the many challenges these options face, such as high prices, poor accessibility, and poor education for women on the subject, more and more women are willing to make the change.

Research conducted on the public awareness of the environmental impact of menstrual products showed that most women are not aware of the ecological implications of these products. However, they also showed that women who are aware tend to make better decisions about the menstrual products they consume. In Puerto Rico, “More women want to make the change, some for fashion, others for empowerment and awareness,” said Valeria Solero, the creator of the reusable menstrual pads brand Manchada. (V. Solero, phone communication, June 11, 2020). Solero mentioned that, aside from helping the planet, since you avoid generating more garbage, switching to reusable menstrual pads helps us avoid “many toxic chemicals that significantly affect our health and body, causing allergies, infections, and diseases.” She also suggests that another important benefit is saving money, since “you make an initial investment and with proper washing and care can last 3-5 years,” avoiding the monthly purchase of products.  

In the middle of the 21st century, menstruation and its management are still hard to discuss due to the lack of education. We must stop seeing it as something terrible and disgusting and start viewing it as a beautiful biological process. The change to more sustainable options is not only beneficial for the earth, but also for your health and pocket. The world is waiting for you.

Author: Antoinette Cedeño