Earth Month 2023: What is Sustainable Menstrual Equity?
Close Icon

Earth Month 2023: What is Sustainable Menstrual Equity?

by Madeleine Shaw
Earth Month 2023: What is Sustainable Menstrual Equity?

Most approaches to period poverty (i.e.: the lack of access to affordable menstrual products) understandably focus on short-term, urgent needs, for example students in schools, or employees in workplaces. 

Given that single-use pads and tampons have until relatively recently been the only product choices available, and further that such products have traditionally been available in bathrooms, offering the same products for free in the same environment makes sense, as a ‘first step’. But the bigger-picture solution is not just having more pads and tampons in more bathrooms.

‘First step’ is an important piece of context, as there is a risk of misunderstanding this one specific approach as an omnipotent solution to period poverty. There are other important aspects of menstrual equity that include education and ending social stigma. We propose that it’s high time to add sustainable and accessible to the list.

Sustainable menstrual equity is the next critical phase of the period equity/justice movement. Our definition of ‘sustainable’ includes the following facets:

  • Environmental. Mainstream disposable pads and tampons (particularly those that feature plastic applicators) are immensely wasteful in both their production and disposal. In order for menstrual equity to be environmentally sustainable, it must include increased access to more environmentally-friendly products, namely sustainable disposable (biodegradable, organic cotton, bamboo) as well as quality reusable (cups and discs, period underwear, cloth pads) product solutions. 
  • Time. If we are truly seeking to solve period poverty, solutions need to last for years, not just a few hours and have lasting educational and social impact. 
  • Cost. Given that disposable menstrual products only last a few hours before needing to be replaced for health and safety reasons, there is a continuous need for them to be re-supplied,  re-purchased or re-donated. Over time, these costs add up and can be unsustainable financially, particularly for cash-strapped non-profit social service agencies, let alone individuals. 

Accessibility: moving beyond “place-based” solutions to “user-centered” solutions

Public access to menstrual products is often presumed to be in bathrooms or other place-based locations (wellness clinics, food pantries etc). While this makes sense for specific groups (ie: citizens accessing public facilities) a significant limitation with the place-based model is that it requires users to be at a particular place at a particular time in order to be able to access products.

We advocate for more inclusive, user-centered solutions that get products to where users are, rather than forcing them to visit a specific location. User-centered models are more inclusive of groups including:

  • Users with disabilities and/or limited access to transportation 
  • Remote workers
  • Individuals living in rural areas
  • Users whose periods do not conveniently arrive when they are visiting a supporting facility, in a gender-affirming bathroom, adequately stocked with products

The PERIOD. Chapter at the University of Central Florida making reusable pads to donate in collaboration with Days for Girls!

Why reusable menstrual solutions?

Reusable products, including washable cloth pads, menstrual cups and discs and period underwear, in addition to overwhelming environmental superiority offer additional critical benefits when it comes to achieving universal menstrual equity.

  1. Reusables can help to address period poverty by providing a more affordable and sustainable option for individuals who may not be able to afford disposable products on a regular basis.
  2. Reusables are inherently user-centered, as once individuals have products of their own, they no longer need to go anywhere to access them. Reusable products break the cycle of constantly needing to hunt for the next product, only to have to repeat the same action a few hours later.
  3. Reusables can be accessed in ways that are easier for users and also allow for better access to preferred products. A key example of this is the provision of e-gift cards, rather than place-based distribution. Rather than having to go somewhere to access products, users are able to conveniently order online and have the products of their choice delivered to them. 
  4. A user-centered access solution is also financially superior. In addition to the financial savings because it can be reused, reusables reduce the workload of facilities and other staff who would otherwise have to manage product distribution and ongoing product replenishment.

Environmental benefits of reusables vs conventional disposables

Based on a rigorous third-party Life Cycle Analysis, Aisle products have a lower environmental footprint compared to conventional disposable tampons and pads:

  • CO2 emissions are reduced up to 95%,
  • Energy consumption is reduced up to 94%
  • Solid waste reduction of up to 99%

Conventional disposable products cradle-to-grave environmental impacts are based on studies by Hait & Powers (2019).

Ever wondered how a Menstrual cup compares to conventional tampons?

“When considering financial and environment costs, using accumulated estimates over 10 years, purchase costs and waste from consistent use of a menstrual cup would be a small fraction of the purchase costs and waste of pads or tampons—eg, if compared with using 12 pads per period, use of a menstrual cup would comprise 5% of the purchase costs and 0·4% of the plastic waste, and compared with 12 tampons per period, use of a menstrual cup would comprise 7% of the purchase costs and 6% of the plastic waste.” (Source: The Lancet Public Health, 2019)

Related Articles

How Post-Secondary Institutions are Achieving Universal Sustainable Menstrual Equity

How Post-Secondary Institutions are Achieving Universal Sustainable Menstrual Equity

More Good News in Canadian Menstrual Equity!

More Good News in Canadian Menstrual Equity!