When Emily Holdaway tried a menstrual cup for the first time, it was a bloody mess.
“I bought one off Trade Me and it was an absolute disaster. It was all the horror stories, because I had no idea what I was doing.”
Before becoming a parent five years ago, she’d never heard of a menstrual cup. She had a baby who didn’t sleep and, as a result, she became involved in various breastfeeding, babywearing, bedsharing communities of parents.
Menstrual cups came up in conversation and, in a gallant effort to be more sustainable, Emily gave it a go. It did not go well. But she persisted.
She heard about a woman – Kimberli Schuitman at My Cup – wanting people to test out a new cup she was putting to market, and Emily volunteered.
She then blogged about it in great detail (choice quotes include: “holy shit it’s big”). With some practise and expert advice, all was overcome and she became a menstrual cup convert.
Emily is one of a growing number of people who are trying to minimise the waste caused by period products.
Instead of disposable tampons and pads, they’re using menstrual cups, period undies and reusable pads. It’s becoming so commonplace that you can now find menstrual cups on supermarket shelves and New Zealand has its own homegrown brand of period undies.
It’s estimated a menstruating person will use 11,000 tampons or pads in a lifetime, with most of it ending up – sometimes via the wastewater treatment plant – in landfill, where it won’t decompose.
There’s also the packaging: the plastic wrappers and plastic strips, the plastic or cardboard applicators. Plastic is sometimes three layers deep on a menstrual product in the name of hygiene.
Emily is well aware of the environmental impact.
“In our lives we throw out about 140kg worth of menstrual waste. You can’t recycle a used tampon. Every person that menstruates is throwing more than 100kg worth of blood-soaked menstrual products into landfill, where it’s going to sit there pretty much indefinitely because our landfills don’t allow things to biodegrade, they’re covered.”
It’s one of the reasons she and My Cup’s Kimberli Schuitman started up The Good Fund, a community project which gets reusable menstrual products to people who need them.
Since The Good Fund started in May, they have had more than 1000 applications from women needing help to manage the cost (estimated to be about $8000 over a lifetime) and environmental impact of their periods.
They’ve sent $12,000 worth of products which they estimate will save more than 16,000kgs of menstrual waste from going to landfill and the equivalent of 25,000kgs of carbon.
The seed of the Good Fund was planted when Emily saw a request on Facebook for tampons and pads to be donated to a new mum who couldn’t afford them.
“I just thought, this isn’t sustainable – those tampons and pads are going to run out, she’s going to be in the exact same position she is in now, they’re going to have to do another call-out, need more donated products, it would never end.
“It’s the cycle of using a tampon, throwing it away, needing to buy another one or ask for another one.
“I thought, this is ludicrous. There has to be a better way.”
She started by becoming a My Cup community partner, which runs a buy one, donate one scheme. Emily got the donated cups to people who needed them via her website and social media. But it quickly became clear it wasn’t enough.
“A cup isn’t the total solution. They’re wonderful, but what about women who can’t use it? What about women with extreme prolapse, with sexual abuse trauma, all of those questions started coming up for me.
“That’s when I realised that if this was going to be done properly then we need to offer everything.”
So she set about fundraising the money to offer everything.
Emily asked for donations of baby and children’s clothing from friends and followers and held a fill-a-bag event that pulled in $2700.
Then others offered to do the same, and 17 fundraisers from Bay of Islands to Dunedin were held that raked in $30,000 for the cause.
The Good Fund was set up in May by Emily and Kimberli, and they’re now able to offer women fully-funded or half-price reusable menstrual product packs.
The applications they have had so far contain heartbreaking stories: women in refuge with no money after paying the bills, women with extremely heavy periods forced to use toilet paper, and sometimes nappies, after running out of money for tampons, single parents who describe tampons as optional, “personal items” – food comes first.
But the pair have been able to extend the support to all, and don’t ask questions about income levels.
“I didn’t want it to limited to period poverty per se,” says Emily. “A lot of women I connect with on a day-to-day basis are single income families, struggling to make ends meet. They don’t necessarily live in poverty but they can’t afford a $45 cup or a pair of period underwear. So they keep buying tampons every month. I wanted to be able to empower those families to switch to reusables too.”
Asked if reusables are for everyone, Emily acknowledges they are not the whole answer – but neither are disposable products. For logistical, psychological, physical or cultural reasons, a cup or a reusable pad might not be the right choice. What’s important is that individual circumstances are taken into account and that there is a choice.
“I think we need to look at every product available, and it has to be done with every woman. You can’t blanket everyone and say this is what you need.”
That’s why The Good Fund asks a lot of health questions of people accessing the fund – it’s not to judge need, it’s to help inform what each person needs.
Emily says what it’s revealed is how many women have serious pelvic health issues that are going undiagnosed or untreated.
She hears from women who have such heavy periods they can’t leave the house, those with endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, women who have allergic reactions to tampons, who have abrasions and welts from using them, women who get infections from using pads.
Then there’s the birth injury and trauma issues.
“The amount of women we say, you need to go to the doctor, go to gynaecologist … they’ve just been living with it.
“There’s a perception that once you give birth your body will never be the same again, so they’re just getting on with it, without realising that there’s ways you can get help.”
The Good Fund have a volunteer gynaecologist who supports them in addressing some women’s stories or concerns but mostly the advice to them is, get some professional help.
For those women, a cup ain’t going to do it. Emily says she’s frustrated by menstrual cup companies that are giving them out to schools and the like without knowing what the needs are.
“Some of the menstrual cup companies that do the buy one, give one, they just dump the menstrual cups at a school, they tick a box.
“People at the high schools are like – I don’t even know what these are. They sit in a cupboard and they’re never used. The company announces they’ve just donated 50 cups and chalks it up as a win, but actually, nothing’s happened.
“There are people who give cups to homeless people – how are they going to wash them? When you’re homeless, a disposable is going to be the best option.”
Having a conversation with the person who is getting the goods – whether that’s to assess what’s right for that person, or to give them instructions on how to use it and wash it to keep themselves safe – is vital, says Emily.
“This is the importance of working on an individual basis. If you’re just handing them out like Oprah – look under your seat, everyone’s got a cup! – the conversation is not happening with that person about their body. You’re not getting any information about whether the cup is going to be the appropriate size or that sort of thing.”
Emily says they know they’re doing it right, and it’s making a difference, because they hear back from women who are using the products.
“We get words like life-changing. It’s really lovely. We get people saying you have no idea how much this has meant to my life. What we’re finding is that people the ability to choose how they manage their period. They feel secure, they feel confident.”
You can find out more about The Good Fund on their website, and if you’re keen to try out a reusable product, there are plenty of New Zealand companies who do it, including My Cup, and if you search Trade Me for reusable cloth pads you’ll find a lot of crafty women who make pads from their own home for extra income.
Those in Wellington city can also learn to make their own reusable pads at this monthly meet-up organised by Wellington Timebank.
Interesting topic. I hope menstrual cup companies are more aware of these types of problem in the future.