Once a month

  • Chris Jeavans
  • 29 Aug 08, 11:17 AM GMT

As several people rightly pointed out on yesterday's post, I have neglected to tackle the issue of sanitary protection. I meant to write about it in the bathroom post but forgot - so here goes.

Toilet signIt is an important waste issue, as women in the UK throw away 4.3 billion items a year - which either go to landfill, incineration or get flushed away and risk ending up on beaches or in the sea.

Thankfully, this last problem has significantly reduced since the Marine Conservation Society and other bodies launched their Bag It and Bin It campaign. But it has yet to be eliminated.

The average age for onset of menstruation is now 12.5 years and a woman can expect to continue having periods until she is about 50, meaning 37.5 years of using sanitary protection (with a year or so off for each pregnancy).

According to a report by the Women's Environmental Network (pdf) it's estimated that this adds up to 12,000 tampons and towels in a lifetime.

Modern slimline sanitary towels work in much the same way as a disposable nappy. The core of the pad contains sodium polyacrylate gel crystals which absorb moisture. A plastic backing sheet protects underwear and a porous top-sheet keeps the wearer feeling dry.

Tampons are largely cotton but tend to have a proportion of rayon - a cellulose-based fibre which is man-made but not synthetic. They may have plastic or cardboard applicators, while non-applicator tampons tend to be individually wrapped in plastic and have plastic wrapping around the box.

There are plastic-free tampons, such as Natracare, which are 100% organic cotton (and plastic-free towels), but these still have to be disposed of. If landfilled they will be subject to the same problems as any other biodegradable material.

However there are also a range of reusable options, such as washable sanitary towels that fasten into underwear with poppers or Velcro.

Minx padsAfter use, they are soaked and can be washed along with a normal load. Many stockists of cloth nappies also sell reusable sanitary towels such as the Minx Pad, pictured right, and instructions for making your own can be found here.

Menstrual cups such as the Mooncup or Keeper are another alternative. These are made from silicone or rubber and are worn internally. They are emptied after a few hours, washed and put back in place.

Finally, natural sponges can be used, although the Women's Environmental Network does not recommend them.

Any of the above options would take some getting used to and experimentation to find the one which suits best but it's worth knowing that alternatives to disposables do exist.

This week I have accumulated:

  • One lid from glass fizzy water bottle with plastic lining and ring around it

  • Two drinking straws in a restaurant - I asked for no straws but the drink came with them anyway

  • 12 bio-plastic disposable nappies - we did well early in the week, until our son fell ill on Wednesday night and this precipitated a switch back to disposables

  • One bag of nappy wipes - while made of paper, the packaging is plastic. I have been using washable wipes, but not all the time

  • Three small juice bottles - one from London Zoo (which has recycling facilities) and two from coffee shops

On Sunday I will post a full list of all the plastic I have got through in the month.


  • Comment number 1.

    Why are the Minx pads have patterns on them? The only person who sees the pad is myself.

    I have tried the Mooncup and it was uncomfortable.

  • Comment number 2.

    surely you didn't keep the two straws from the restraunt?! Left in the glass, they can be washed and re-used, or disposed of responsibly by the restraunt, and it's not your concern - just like you didn't worry about any of the plastic packaging used to get the lasagne, chips, salad, bottle of house white, and Tirramisu from producer to the restraunt in the first place. A meal out - none of that plastic counts?!

  • Comment number 3.

    Swopped to the Mooncup about 6 months ago.

    It takes a few goes to get it comfy, but now would never turn back. So much better than the conventional stuff. I even forgot I'm wearing it sometimes.

  • Comment number 4.

    Which non-disposable menstrual product did you use, and would you recommend it, how did it compare to the disposables? (sorry if it's too personal...)

  • Comment number 5.

    I can't help wondering how environmentally friendly the home made pads are - I followed the link and she says she washes them in the machine twice before putting them in a dryer!
    How much energy does that use?

  • Comment number 6.

    the good thing about minx pads and the mooncup/ keeper is amongst other things the amount of money you save. A mooncup is around €30 and lasts for about 10 years!
    I know in the UK the VAT rate on sanitary products was cut from 17.5% to 5% in 2001 but I am not sure it is the same in other countries...

  • Comment number 7.

    #3 I have just talked about my (fairly brief) experiences with the 'mooncup' in the previous post and I agree entirely, it's very comfy (though i have found the insertion and removal to be quite uncomfortable - though I'm sure it'll get better with practice). I hardly know I am wearing it.

    Also (though this could just be coincidence), my period pains haven't been quite as bad for the couple of months I have used it.

    Having a quick look at the Minx pads I might invest in some of these as well... I hate disposible panty liners so a couple of these might do the trick!

  • Comment number 8.

    Great post Chris. I switched from disposables to reusable pads about 4 months ago and it was one of the best decisions I made. I just bung them in the wash and they dry quickly, no need to tumble dry or wash more than once. They're fleece lined ones that I got from Lollipop. I feel it makes that time of the month easier and more pleasant to manage.

  • Comment number 9.

    To pinkfloydareace (comment 1) - when you tried the mooncup did you cut the stem off? I found that made the single biggest difference to me, it is very uncomfortable with the stem on and you don't need it at all. Look at the FAQ's on the mooncup site to learn more!

    It did take a few months to get used to it (wore a backup pad at first), where to place it to prevent leaks and be comfortable, etc, but now I wouldn't go back to tampons if you paid me!

    Also, you never forget to take it with you unless you happen to start while you are out. That is the only reason I still carry a few emergency tampons.

    I recommend it to all my friends!

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi Chris,

    It is good to see that the amount of plastic waste is reasonably small. If you maintained the trend further reduction would be achieved.

    Since it is only a month's exercise, it will be fascinating to see how the experience affects your normal life. Everybody I have come across so far has permanently changed their waste habits but these people are not part-timers.

  • Comment number 11.

    I personally think your whole experiment has been an amazing and a very interesting eye opening journey - please ignore any negative comments made by some rather pedantic commentors as all efforts should be rewarded not critisized.
    Well done Chris on what has been so far an absolultely fascinating read x

  • Comment number 12.

    Another option to reduce period-related waste over one's lifetime is to opt to use contraceptive methods that halt one's period. Of course not useful if you are trying to conceive or if said methods have bad side effects for you.

    I switched to the mooncup a while ago and found it OK but somewhat faffy. Then I got Implanon and don't have periods any more, which is an enormous faff-reduction.

  • Comment number 13.

    #12 I've been discussing the benefits of 'opting out' of periods in the plastic bottles thread.

    I've been period-free for over 8 years now and certainly don't miss them!

  • Comment number 14.


    I think the lady in the post may be over-reacting a little. I soak my pads throughout the week, changing the water everyday and then stick them in a normal wash on 30 and on the washing line. They are perfectly clean and stain free. Washing twice seems excessive, and as you say, wastes water and energy.

    This is probably way too much info, but tampsons and pads are so absorbent that they dry you out a little too efficently- which can cause cramping. Also the bleach in them used to give me headaches that i just assumed were natural.

    I would whole heartedly recommend reusable menstruation products.

  • Comment number 15.

    #12 I don't personally know anyone who has had Implanon inserted but I've been having a read around on the internet.

    It appears that while many people have no problems at all, in a lot of cases it doesn't stop you having your periods and in some cases periods seem to last for months! In which cases other products are still needed. There also seems to be a lot of nasty side effects!

    On a completely side issue, I'm concerned about the number of comments which referred to 'risk free sex'! STIs anyone...?

    It definitely doesn't sound like it's for me!

  • Comment number 16.

    I'm glad you've covered this topic, Chris - it is one that needs highlighting as the implications of disposable sanitary protection on the environment are massive.

    I use washable pads and get on really well with them. I would highly recommend them to anyone - you just treat them like washable nappies and soak them in cold water (you can add a couple of drops of lavender essential oil or some hydrogen peroxide if you like) until you do your next wash.

    You save heaps of money as well as doing something positive for the environment, so it's win-win.

  • Comment number 17.

    I have been following this blog for a while now but as yet have not commented. I have found it fascinating to read peoples reactions (often completely missing the point) and solutions to waste reduction. It has definitely made me think about my waste more. I'd considered myself pretty good to start with, always having reusable fabric bags on me for shopping (all types, not just groceries), avoiding excess packaging as much as possible and being an absolute stickler for recycling everything possible (often to the groans of 'here she goes again' by my flatmates). This blog has shown me just how much further I could be going.

    I am currently trying the mooncup for the first time, I read about it in one of the earlier posts and did some research into it. It had been suggested to me before but it sounded messy and difficult so I ignored the suggestion. What a mistake!

    I can't recommend it enough after just one month! While it is a little difficult to place and remove at first this is a small problem, eventually overcome. The benefits are much greater! Less pain, less mess, less waste, more comfort. I am now on a crusade to get all my friends and family using it as well.

    Keep up the good work Chris.

  • Comment number 18.

    Do I get the prize for having been using reusable menstrual cups the longest? I first got a Keeper, which was made out of natural rubber in the US for scientists living the Biosphere experiment, in 1996 and yes it did last about 11 years, when the little tag at the bottom finally fell off. I then bought a Mooncup, which is made in the UK from silicone. I found the little tag a big long and sharp so I cut it back, but you know, I preferred the natural rubber Keeper and went back to that.

    I have saved an absolute FORTUNE over the years, apart from using STs on heavy days. These are fantastic products, well worth persevering with. Handy tip, try and empty it in a toilet that has a basin so you can wash it between wears. Disabled toilets are great for this.....

  • Comment number 19.

    I've recently stopped using tampons and started using a mooncup and I don't regret it one bit. It took a day to get used to and I had to cut the stem but that was recommended in the booklet. After using it for just one period it made so much sense- it's comfortable to use (once the stem was shortened), there is no tampon string that can get messy sometimes, you don't need to carry around extra tampons (and do that walk to the bathroom with the tampon up the sleeve), there is no hidden effects (like leaving fibres inside and drying out too much) and best of all my bathroom bin remains empty= fantastic!

    I really couldn't recommend it more and you can buy it from boots for only £20 (not £30 as previously mentioned) so it quickly pays for itself.

  • Comment number 20.

    Wow, thank you for the pads link and the blog as a whole. Its been very enlightening and has made me aware of our plastic useage. The person who commented about washing and drying, well I wash my babies nappies in with everything else. If you soak them in antibacterial sanitiser there is no problem at all. The same with sanitary pads.Drying well yes, the only answer we have for that is an old fashioned victorian drier in the kitchen and for personal items, the airing cupboard would work very well without using any more energy than needed.
    Chris, great blog, again, Thank you!!

  • Comment number 21.

    I got a Mooncup a year ago as I was moving to a hot country where I wasn't sure what the availability of tampons would be like (actually you can find them here). I was also concerned about the risks of problems like Toxic Shock Syndrome, which is alledgedly less with menstrual cups than with tampons. Another good reason to switch. Just cut the stem off the Mooncup completely, it's much more comfortable and it's not really needed.

  • Comment number 22.

    I'm with #12. I've been tri-cycling just plain, generic birth control pills for years with no ill effects and much lighter periods (thus fewer pads) when I do cycle. There's also some good evidence that the practice reduces the risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Comment number 23.

    Chris - an excellent post to almost wrap up with and I've been a convert to washable sanpro for a few years and there's no going back for me either. The Diva Cup was my first experience, made even more comfortable when I discovered the Mooncup.

    It's not just the lighter impact on landfill and my pocket that makes it such a good move, but the fact that there's nothing chemically intrusive about my person either!

    Thanks for a brilliant perspective on a month without plastic - I am sure you've converted more people across to a more planet friendly way of living!

    Great work,
    Tracey Smith

  • Comment number 24.

    I'd like to add my thanks to Chris for this interesting and highly informative blog. Chris, you're not the only one who almost didn't let their partner into the house when he brought a plastic carrier bag home from the supermarket this week!

    #22 I'm totally with you on this front, as I've said elsewhere, medical science means that for the majority of women, periods are now a matter of choice, not just something we 'have to put up with' - I dread to think how many tampons/ pads I'd have put into landfill over the past 8 years if I hadn't taken the decision to opt out.

    For those women who can't or won't stop their periods though, I can honestly say one of my friends started using Mooncup a couple of years ago; I now don't know a single mutual friend who has periods and doesn't use this system, they all give it rave reviews :)

    #15 the option I went for is the Mirena IUD - much lower hormone levels, therefore fewer side-effects. If the thought of pain on insertion worries you, most hospitals will offer to fit it as a 'day case' procedure under a 5 minute general anaesthetic, though I found, even having never given birth, the pain was no worse than your average period cramp and over with in minutes :)

    It only needs to be changed once every five years and I fully intend to keep updating till I'm well past the menopause!

    I have to say, the advertising of 'risk-free sex' does seem a 'little' irresponsible, but it has to be said these products are marketed at women who are in long-term relationships, as an alternative to sterilisation. I'm now actually grateful to the patronising doctors who refused to sterilise me aged 28 on the grounds that I 'might change my mind' - this way, I'm just as effectively protected from pregnancy, without the hassle or environmental impact of having periods :)

  • Comment number 25.

    I heard your segment on The World. It is nothing short of amazing how plastic is everywhere. I share your concern with plastic everywhere and decided to do something about it. I started a company that makes cornstarch packaging material which replaces plastic materials. If you want to learn more about it, please check out our website at I would appreciate your comments
    Tim Colonnese

  • Comment number 26.

    #25 - Interested to hear about your product. Have you got a product lifecycle assessment to demonstrate how your product stacks up against its plastic equivalent? [Assuming that both options were taken to their end-point and fully recycled.]

  • Comment number 27.

    I'm using Diva cup and I wouldn't change it for anything else now.

  • Comment number 28.

    I've been using reusable menstrual pads for nigh on 16 years. I used them post partum as well. I recently started using the Diva cup for days when I want to swim etc.

    To reply to the question of energy use for washing and drying

    First: you don't need to wash them alone. I was them in whatever other laundry I'm washing. You must wash them in cold as hot water merely sets blood stains anyway.

    Washing them twice is overkill. If your worried about cross contamination, give them a soak in a salt, or hydrogen peroxide solution (keep a covered basin of water under your sink and toss this solution down the toilet once a day). That will kill any bacteria you may be harboring.

    I dry mine on the clothes line. Unlike cloth diapers, They come apart in easy to dry pieces.

    My daughter started menstruating last year and she will not use the reusable ones, and I was shocked at the current prices!

  • Comment number 29.

    I've been using a Mooncup for a few years now and have NEVER looked back. It's hygenic and there is no waste or polution. I can't understand why more people haven't discovered it.

  • Comment number 30.

    Thank you women of the blog for showing me the light and introducing me to the moon cup! It is the best thing I have yet to discover.

    I do switch back and forth between my moon cup and tampons (I am a novice at the mooncup), but I found that in certain situations, where you don't have access to a sink and soap to wash your hands/or the cup itself or have a private sink (camping, kayaking, and airports), a tampon with applicator might be more hygienic. If I am wrong or if anyone has experienced these situations than I would appreciate the advice :)

  • Comment number 31.

    Thank you for posting this. I am 28 and I discovered the world of re-usable menstrual products (via the internet) a year ago. I make my own reusable pads in fun prints-- even though no one else sees them, I still think it's fun when they are whimsical or match my outfit. They last a long time and get softer and more absorbent with use. I have tried to talk to my sisters about them, but they are too "grossed out" by the whole idea, which is too bad as they're a million times better than disposable products that irritate the skin. I keep a few disposable ones in my person in case I'm out when the need arises, but I would never go back to them full time: I bleed less, have less cramping and save money!

  • Comment number 32.

    #30 This may not be the eco-friendly answer you need and I'd love to see/hear a better alternative.

    As a healthcare professional, I would recommend using either an alcohol gel hand-rub or antibacterial wipes to solve your problem (I keep a small bottle of gel in my handbag, each one lasts about 8 months).

    Obviously the wipes create waste material, but far less than used sanitary products, and the gel comes in plastic bottles, but still both lower your risk of TSS without the need to resort to applicator tampons.

    Let's face it, most of the public facilities in the UK fail to meet any sort of hygiene levels, until this problem is sorted out we each need to take action to protect our own health - a little gel or wipe could save the NHS hundreds of pounds (not to mention pollution from packaging, excreted antibiotics etc) and help us and our families be that little bit healthier!

    Finally, good luck to all you ladies who continue to insist on having periods, I won't be joining you any time soon :)

  • Comment number 33.

    I love my Mooncup. I've been using it for several years now and I can't imagine using anything else any more. I remember when I first got it, it was a bit odd and uncomfortable, but I can only reiterate the advice other posters have posted and say that anyone finding it uncomfortable should remove that tail thing completely. It doesn't make it hard to remove but it is a lot more comfortable! And the best way to avoid leakage is to a) make sure the holes around the top are not blocked and b) make sure it has completely opened when you insert it (you'll be able to tell if it hasn't opened properly if you run a fingertip around the top edge once it's in place). Some people do get a bit squeamish about menstrual cups, but it's only a bit of (your own) blood and it isn't dirty or unhygienic. As long as you wash your hands it is no problem :)

  • Comment number 34.

    I use the Mooncup (though I also skip some of my periods using the Pill) and really would never consider using disposable products again. Aside from the waste and expense, there's the sweaty chafing from those horrible plastic-y pads, which is a particular problem if you like to be active. Tampons are better, but the string causes some discomfort and irritation. The Mooncup is just so much simpler and more comfortable.

    As for the problem of rinsing it out in public bathrooms - remember you don't need to empty it as often as you'd change a tampon, it can be left for up to 12 hours, so on a normal working day you should be able to do it at home. If necessary you can also just empty it, wipe with tissue and reinsert. Always give it a good wash with hot water and soap between periods, of course, or you can sterilise with boiling water if you're really worried about germs.

    I don't use the reusable pads, because I prefer 'internal' protection. However I don't see why washing them should be an 'environmental' issue. Unless you have extremely heavy bleeding, you shouldn't need to use a huge number of them. And they can just be rinsed and put in with your normal laundry, I wouldn't think you'd need to put the washing machine on especially for them.


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