“I was thinking about how many of these products I personally was throwing away each month,” she said. “And I hadn’t even really thought about it in terms of how many menstruating humans there are on the planet at any given time and how many products collectively we’re throwing away.”
Then, in 2016, Abramson got turned onto reusable menstrual products when a childhood acquaintance became a sustainability influencer. The friend posted quizzes about which period cups work best for different lifestyles, and that is how Abramson started using the reusable Dot Cup, which collects rather than absorbs fluid.
Abramson isn’t alone in trying out sustainable menstrual products in hopes of lessening her ecological footprint. As interest grows, studies have found such products are less expensive over time and less harmful to the environment.
Johanna Mall, a 27-year-old landscape architect in San Diego, said she has spent only $20 on her menstrual products in the past nine years — but she has bought at least four menstrual cups for friends to try in that time.
Mall said she is loyal to her cup, which has a life span of up to 10 years. She’s starting to search for its replacement, but she said she will be sticking with a cup because of its performance and price tag. “How much money do you spend on tampons and pads per year versus a one-time cost?” she said.
That number is different for every person who menstruates. Cost depends on flow, preference and how often a person changes products. Studies suggest the cost of single-use menstrual products over a lifetime can be from about $2,000 to $6,000.
Given the potential benefits for individuals and the planet, environmentalists have been pushing reusable menstrual products as a worthwhile sustainable swap, and the global menstrual cup market is growing: It is projected to reach $636.16 million by 2027, as concerns about single-use waste rise and users become more aware of their options.
More research has also been done in recent years around the effect of single-use menstrual products. One study this year found that in the United Kingdom, 28,114 tons of menstrual waste is produced annually, and about 3,363 tons are lost to the environment.
“Once it’s flushed, only half of it will reach the wastewater treatment plant,” said Raffaella Villa, a co-author of the study and professor of environmental bioengineering at De Montfort University in the U.K. She said the remainder will stay in sewers or flow out into the environment through seas or rivers.
Meanwhile, Villa and her colleagues’ research found that reusable menstrual products would reduce waste by 22,907 tons a year and greenhouse gas emissions by 7,900 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. For context, the Environmental Protection Agency found that in 2018, a typical vehicle emitted about 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Other studies have found that reusable menstrual cups’ environmental impact is roughly 1.5 percent of their disposable competitors’ because of the reduced production associated with them.
“I think what most people don’t think about is all of the energy and the water and the emissions associated with making products — most people only think about the end of life,” said Susan Powers, director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at Clarkson University and co-author of a 2019 life-cycle assessment of menstrual products. “The bottom line is when you use any disposable product, most of the impact comes from the manufacturing.”
Four years after switching to a menstrual cup, Abramson also bought period underwear to try out during the pandemic. The time at home allowed Abramson to monitor her flow and when she would need to change her period underwear, she said. (Estimates suggest that regular, nonorganic pads may take 500 to 800 years to break down.)
“I was worried that it was going to feel like a diaper, but actually I realized, ‘Wait a minute, single-use pads feel more like a diaper than this,’ ” she said.
Period underwear is made of absorbent fabric that traps menstrual blood so it doesn’t leak. When the underwear is full, users can wash and use them again. Each pair lasts about two years, according to manufacturers, and ranges in cost from around $20 to $40. Experts say the main issue with reusable underwear is that it is not widely able to be recycled.
Jennifer Lincoln, an OB/GYN, lactation consultant and creator of a popular TikTok channel dedicated to reproductive health education, said she wishes period underwear had been around for her teen years. But now, it’s the younger generation leading the reusable charge, she added: Gen Zers “are the ones that are adopting these. They are onboard using period cups and period underwear.”
Lincoln said she counsels patients to explore which sustainable period products will work best with their bodies — adding that some people may need practice to get the correct positioning of a menstrual cup or disc. She posits that the newness of reusable menstrual products is a big barrier to being more mainstream.
As she put it: “A tampon just seems a little more straightforward.”
There’s a market barrier as well, said Nicole Darnall, foundation professor of management and public policy and director and co-founder of Arizona State University’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative.
“If you go to buy an organic carrot, a carrot is still a carrot,” she said. “If we talk about sustainable menstrual products, it’s a completely different product, so we’re having to educate consumers about the novelty of a product they have never been connected with before.”
But, Darnall said, when the public is educated on these products, they begin to connect on a more personal level. With new studies coming out about the presence and health effects of microplastics in tampons, choosing sustainable menstrual products may be a decision that benefits the health of the user as well as the health of the planet.
Darnall’s research has found that a higher percentage of consumers consider sustainability if it directly affects them. A 2018 study she co-wrote, for example, found that 7 percent of consumers regularly consider sustainability that does not directly affect them, while 22 percent think about sustainability if a product’s sustainability will benefit them personally.
With that 29 percent of people, she said, “we’re reaching a critical tipping point where we can actually shape markets.”
An individual’s purchasing power can feel small in the grand scheme of the U.S. economy, Darnall noted, but she still likes to focus on the positives. “Collectively, if we’re all embracing the power of one, then we can radically shape the markets,” she said.
The benefits of sustainable menstrual products can also go beyond price and sustainability, but shopping for period products was never enjoyable for D. Ojeda, a senior national organizer at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Ojeda, who is nonbinary, describes traditional single-use period products as “not gender-affirming” because of their location in the feminine hygiene aisle, as well as language on packaging.
“People are already stereotyping me as this woman when I’m not,” Ojeda said about what it has been like to purchase traditional period products.
Since the start of the pandemic, Ojeda has switched to using reusable period underwear from TomBoyX, with occasional backup from pads.
“I have really horrible periods, so it’s been a very comforting thing to wear when I’m not feeling my best,” Ojeda said.
For Ojeda, using the boxer brief period underwear serves as “less of a reminder, less of a trigger that people are seeing me as a woman because of my menstruation.”
Rebecca Reicherter, a consumer insights consultant and birder living in the Philadelphia suburbs, said that she has been environmentally conscious for years, but didn’t initially find the maintenance of reusable period products appealing. But eventually, she said, her conservationist conscience won out.
Four months ago, the 33-year-old switched to a silicone menstrual disc.
“It wasn’t a very difficult transition,” she said. “I was anticipating that it would be uncomfortable or would feel icky, but for me it works, and honestly I think less about period maintenance now.”
In fact, she added, she has turned her period “into a positive thing”: “There’s this weird satisfaction in knowing that instead of throwing out who knows how many tampons every month, I’m not anymore.”