Q: I want to wean myself off big-brand tampons and pads, but I'm a little squeamish about reusables. Do you have any recommendations?
A: Let me give you a little incentive. About 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are used once and tossed in the trash each and every year. That's a hell of a lot of landfill-clogging, ladies! Even if you're a "light days" kind of girl, you're still creating a few hundred pounds of waste in your lifetime.
And though companies tell us their tampon applicators are perfectly flushable, that doesn't mean sewer overflows won't wash 'em back up onto a shore near you. (Horrifically, tampon applicators and other plastics were found in the stomachs of Hawaiian Laysan albatross chicks that had died in their nests, according to a recent study.)
Then, of course, there are the actual materials that go into keeping you dry and happy every month. (Wouldn't want that blue water to leak.) Super-absorbant rayon (often blended with pesticide-drenched cotton) forms the basis of most pads and tampons. Menstrual product pushers are only too happy to tell you the stuff comes from trees. Yes, synthetic rayon is a wood pulp derivative, but that doesn't mean it's chem-free.
However, companies do insist they've ditched their old practice of bleaching the batting with chlorine gases, a process responsible for the carcinogenic and highly persistent by-product dioxin. Instead, they all say they use chlorine dioxide, oxygen and/or hydrogen peroxide in a process called "elemental-chlorine-free bleaching" to "significantly minimize the potential for dioxin formation."
Tampax also says it tests its cotton fibres to ensure that they don't contain detectable levels of pesticides, but while your private parts might be spared exposure, the cotton's still grown with pesticides. And drugstore brands like Tampax and Always are chock full of plastics: synthetic latex wings, polyethylene dry-weave layers in pads and "silky" coatings on tampons. No one will tell us what types of plastics are used in applicators.
If you're going to buy drugstore tampons, cardboard applicators are better than plastic, and applicator-free types like O.B. are another step up. But you really should be using tampons like Natracare's, made with 100 per cent certified organic non-chlorine-bleached cotton. They're free of synthetics and chemical additives, and come with or without cardboard applicators (from $8.99/20 at Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor, Big Carrot on Danforth, Noah's on Yonge or Bloor, Whole Foods on Avenue Road and some Loblaws and ValueMarts). You can also pick up organic unbleached pads by companies like Organic Essentials (from $14.99/22 at Grassroots, Big Carrot and Whole Foods).
Still, these products are disposable, and each item comes individually plastic-wrapped. If you're ready to take the plunge and go even greener, your next option is reusable cloth pads. You can buy Canadian-stitched ones by Goddess Moon (from $11.99 at Big Carrot) or organic unbleached styles by Moonwit and Many Moons (from $9.99 for a single pad). Many Moons also makes recycled pads with fabric ends from the clothing industry ($8.50/pad at Grassroots). Luna crafts both organic and non-organic versions ($22.99/two at Big Carrot), as well as all-in-one padded organic "period panties" with or without a layer of nylon (in bikini, thong or brief styles, from $19.99 at www.lunapads.com). Luna, however, sells some of its kits in a vinyl reusable package - and vinyl, as we know, is a dirty, dirty plastic. The company says it's working toward changing this. To avoid all packaging problems you can always sew your own (http://bloodsisters.org/bloodsisters/pads.html).
If bulky pads and period panties sound too cumbersome but you don't want to trash tampons every month, you can use the ocean's best-known absorbant: sea sponges. Sure, stuffing a dried ocean critter in your box might seem a little odd, but it works just as well as a tampon according to fans of the product. Just rinse, squeeze and reinsert; soak in a little apple cider vinegar and warm water overnight. But like anything from the sea, you have to make sure they're harvested sustainably like Sea Pearls (www.lunapads.com or www.gladrags.com (from $9/two).
Since you're already experimenting, you can also try a reusable cup. The Keeper, for instance, is made of natural gum rubber and lasts about a decade ($49.99 at Grassroots). If you're allergic to latex, you might want to use the silicone-based Diva Cup ($39.99 at Grassroots and Big Carrot). Just steer clear of drugstore posers like Instead, which looks like a reusable cup but has to be thrown out after one use. What's the point?
Recently, big sanitary product brands have been pushing their own versions of disposable wipes especially for gals on the rag. If you're keen on "freshening" your privates on the go, at least reach for an organic cotton wipe made with essential oils (Natracare, $7.99 at Big Carrot) instead of the chemical fragrances, propylene glycol and petroleum derivatives in mainstream brands. A good old-fashioned shower will do the same job without the waste.
Lastly, if you've got a green bin, use it. Pads and tampons, even the conventional kind, can be composted into soil instead of rotting in a landfill.
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