Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” menstrual cups, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Those who are all too familiar with “that time of the month” also know about the costs that come with it. Tampons and sanitary pads are the most traditional solutions and, even though 56.5 million American people still buy these products, the numbers are declining. More people are turning to menstrual cups to reduce waste, but there are other factors to consider if you’re thinking of ditching the cotton for a cup.
What to Be Wise On:
There’s no contest: menstrual cups are a more sustainable choice than tampons and pads. Life-cycle assessments (LCAs) show that the environmental impact of menstrual cups is less than 1.5% of the environmental impact of disposable products like tampons and pads. Menstrual cups have an average life-span of 10 years, giving them a huge advantage over single-use options. Even if used for just one cycle, a menstrual cup is still less impactful than tampons and pads. But despite its lower impact, a menstrual cup will require water to keep clean, and the product’s materials still have an impact on the environment.
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The Factors To Consider:
Several of the best-selling menstrual cups are made from BPA-free medical-grade silicone. Derived from silica, silicone is manufactured from this naturally occurring ingredient. While silica sand is the second most abundant material on earth, it’s still not renewable, so we need to be conscious of how much we use. While some menstrual cup brands like DivaCup list that they're recyclable, it ultimately depends on your municipal recycling program and what they'll accept. Some curbside recycling programs don’t accept menstrual cups for sanitary reasons and because it requires a special recycling process. Good news is, DivaCup has partnered with Terracycle to create the first menstrual cup recycling program in North America. The recycling process grinds used products into a silicone powder that can be used to make athletic tracks and playground turf.
Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE)
Another popular material for menstrual cups is a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE). While it acts and feels like silicone, TPE is still a kind of plastic, which means it comes with a bit of a bad rep. TPE is derived from petroleum, another non-renewable material, which is refined to create the polymer that goes into your menstrual cup. Plastic production is at an all-time high and creates dozens of gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Before you knock TPE menstrual cups, however, know that they can be produced with recycled materials, which can reduce their environmental impact. If you opt for TPE, look out for menstrual cups that use recycled material.
While less common, some menstrual cups are made of natural rubber, aka latex. Made from rubber trees, the latex production industry has faced criticism for contributing to deforestation, carbon emissions, and biodiversity loss in Southeast Asia where the majority of rubber trees are grown. In Cambodia alone, rubber tree plantations have led to a quarter of the country’s deforestation. While global demand for latex has led to these issues, rubber is still a highly recyclable material, which is definitely a plus if disposed of properly. As always, check with your local recycling facility to check to see if they accept used latex menstrual cups.
The most significant impact that menstrual cups have on the environment occurs during their use phase because they need to be washed after every use for sanitary reasons. On average, water runs from the faucet at 2.2 gallons per minute. Assuming it takes at least 20 seconds to properly wash a menstrual cup between uses and it’s switched every 8 hours, a menstrual cup theoretically uses 2.2 gallons of water in a day to stay clean.
Using water comes with high energy (and, as a result, emissions) costs. Treating and moving water that goes down the drain requires energy, which is the greatest source of global greenhouse gas emissions. As if that wasn’t bad enough, wastewater treatment plants are responsible for 9% and 4% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions globally, respectively. However, compared to the water needed to grow the cotton in tampons, this water use is relatively insignificant.
A Few Key Takeaways:
Not only are menstrual cups less burdensome to the environment than tampons and pads, but they are also easier on the bank. The average person will use 240 tampons in a year, coming out to about $50. Meanwhile, menstrual cups cost around $30 on average and, since they can last about 10 years, they cost just 6% of what tampons will cost over the same time period.
All menstrual cup materials have some adverse impacts on the environment whether it’s deforestation, disposal concerns, or high emissions from production. Regardless of the option you choose, the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to be mindful of the amount of water used to keep your cup clean. One thing is for sure, however, if you use and reuse a menstrual cup, then you’re saving a ton of tampon and pad waste.
Common Questions We Get
“Are menstrual cups better than tampons & pads?”
The short answer is: yes. But, we think you should still know what comes with this wiser choice – no one’s perfect, right? As outlined above, washing a menstrual cup contributes significantly to the product’s environmental impact and manufacturing silicone, plastic, and latex can be energy-intensive or contribute to deforestation. When it comes to environmental impact, however, menstrual cups are objectively less harmful than tampons and pads according to reputable LCAs – menstrual cups have about 1.5% of the environmental impact of tampons and pads.
“Are menstrual cups biodegradable?”
First off, let’s be clear about what we mean when we say biodegradable. In very broad terms, it means that given the right conditions, an item will eventually break down into organic matter and blend back into the Earth’s soil. TPE is made of plastic, which is not able to biodegrade since it doesn’t break down into organic matter. Silicone and latex are derived from natural materials (silica and rubber, respectively), which means that technically they will biodegrade if given enough time and the right conditions. Be careful of products touting biodegradability, however, because ultimately it doesn’t mean much if we don’t dispose of it properly.