how to have a zero waste period – menstrual cups

A clear menstrual cup in a light beige cloth bag, sitting on a pink background.

This post is not sponsored in any way. All opinions are my own.

When I was in high school, I used to carry tampons to the bathroom hidden in my sleeve. Those days are long gone – advocating for my own reproductive health put an end to speaking about menstruation in hushed tones. It’s something billions of people do and a completely natural part of life. So, let’s talk about periods!

The Problem With Conventional Menstrual Products

On average, a person who menstruates will spend 6 years of their life with their period. That handful of days every month really adds up! This works out to approximately 10,000 tampons, pads, and/or panty liners ending up in landfills per menstruating person. In Canada, menstrual products can cost an estimated $6000 over the course of your life, with rural areas being more expensive. These costs can be prohibitive for a number of reasons, with 1 in 4 Canadians reporting that they have struggled to afford supplies. Inadequate access to these basic supplies can mean missed educational and work opportunities. Some great places to donate supplies to include Birth Mark, The Period Purse, and your local shelters and food pantries.

In addition to being costly, conventional menstrual products are single-use and made of plastic, wood pulp, and cotton (a water and pesticide intensive crop with many ethical sourcing issues) and are treated with chemicals for colour, absorption, scent, and waterproofing. A tremendous amount of resources go into producing and shipping these single-use products, only to end up in landfills and waterways. The need for affordable and reusable menstrual products could not be more clear.

Why Switch to Reusable Menstrual Products?

There is so much more to switching than just reducing waste! One of the most valuable things for me was learning to become more in tune with my body, especially with an unpredictable cycle and managing PCOS. While the initial cost of the swap is more expensive than a monthly supply of disposables, you will save time and money by not purchasing any more menstrual hygiene products for several years. Since switching, I am seeing more and more options pop up everywhere at more accessible prices. Some brands also donate to folks in need of menstrual products, so please consider this when making your selection.

So what are your options? In this series I will explore the 3 most popular options for zero waste – menstrual cups, cloth pads, and period underwear. I’ll discuss my experience with them, average cost, frequently asked questions, and more. Keep in mind that there is no perfect solution – your body and circumstances will change over time, so go with the flow…literally.

Menstrual Cups

What is a Menstrual Cup?

A menstrual cup is a little goblet-shaped device worn inside the body, much like a tampon. They are typically made of medical grade silicone or rubber, and last for several years with proper care. Unlike tampons, the cup collects blood rather than absorbing it. They hold more fluid than a tampon and can be worn for up to 12 hours before needing to be emptied. Cups are great options for folks who prefer tampons, work long shifts, or without regular access to a private bathroom while away from home.

How to Choose a Menstrual Cup

There are so many brands, shapes, sizes, and colours of cups to choose from these days. Which is both awesome and a little overwhelming. There are a few factors to consider when choosing a cup including your age, average flow, if you have given birth, your activity level, cramping, cervix height, etc. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure about some of these! Here is a great quiz to help you find the right cup for your body. Keep in mind that your body and cycles will change over time which may require a new cup with a better fit.

I have been using a MoonCup in size “A” for the last few years as I am over 30, have had two vaginal births, and short cervical height. I have PCOS and my period can be spotty with heavy cramping, which has lessened with using a cup. I did find the stem a little too long, so I gave it two little snips until it was just right. Mine was clear when I bought it but has become stained over time. Which is fine! Stained does not mean dirty. If this bothers you, choose a cup that comes in a darker colour.

Note: If you have an IUD in place, prolapse, or other pre-existing condition that you are worried about, please check with your healthcare provider about using a cup. A menstrual disc that sits at the cervix without the use of suction may be just the ticket.

COST: $15-$50 USD depending on the brand and seller. These days you can find major brands at big box retailers at an affordable price. There are also buy/swap/trade groups for reusable menstrual options on Facebook.

How Do You Use a Menstrual Cup?

Menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina like a tampon…sort of. There is no applicator, but you do need to fold it (I like the “C” fold) to get it in. It will then open inside, and the little holes will form a seal using suction. Give the stem a little tug to make sure that it is firmly in place. If you are having trouble inserting it on the toilet, squatting while in the shower works too. Check out this great video with different folds for different bodies!

You know your body best and will get to know how long you can wear it. I have a heavy flow in the beginning and change it when I wake up and before an hour or two before going to bed with no issues. If you love data, some cups even have measuring lines so you can track your volume and adjust your wearing time. When it is time to take it out, give the bottom of the cup a little squeeze/twist combo to break the seal and gently pull down to remove it.

Okay! So it’s out and it’s full…now what? Dump it out in the toilet and give it a quick rinse in the sink before re-inserting. I cannot lie, this part is a little messy but it’s quick! If you don’t have access to a sink, a quick wipe with toilet paper works in a pinch.

What about leaking? If the cup is in correctly, it shouldn’t leak. There is a learning curve though, so if you are worried about leaking you can always wear a reusable pad, liner, or period underwear with the cup until you feel comfortable with it. 

How Do You Clean a Menstrual Cup?

Cups should be sanitized between cycles and stored in a small pouch (usually comes with it) between uses. In general, this means boiling your cup for about 10 minutes, but be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions. Some folks add a little baking soda to the water as well. I just use my regular stainless steel saucepan for this and leave the water boiling for a few more minutes after I remove my cup before washing the pan as I normally would.

The tiny holes (that create the suction) in the cup can become clogged. To clear them, you can try squeezing water through them under the tap, or gently scrub them using an old toothbrush.

Staining is common and does not mean your cup isn’t clean! If it bothers you, you can try soaking your cup in a solution of ⅓ hydrogen peroxide and ⅔ water, or let it sit in a sunny window for a few hours to sun bleach it. Be sure to rinse it well and let it dry before storing it. 

Here’s a quick little video of how I clean my cup!

In conclusion, I love my menstrual cup. L-O-V-E. I wish I would have switched when I first heard of them years ago. It’s comfortable, easy to clean, and takes up a tiny amount of space at home or while travelling. I save money while not creating any new waste and it will last for years. Cups pay for themselves after just a few cycles, especially if you go through a lot of disposables. I also love that the cup does not “stick” like a dry tampon does, especially on lighter days toward the end of your period. The whole thing is very “set it and forget it” making it one of my favourite sustainable swaps!

If cups aren’t for you for whatever reason, that’s okay! There are other eco-friendly options like cloth pads and period underwear that I will be writing about next. Stay tuned!

Are you ready to make the switch to reusables for your period?

3 thoughts on “how to have a zero waste period – menstrual cups

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