Uni students lead the way in sanitary revolution


Words || Ashle Price 

“I’ve got a secret that I want to share” was the title of an email that Elizabeth Chapman, nurse and midwife, received from a friend in 2007. Intrigued, she opened the email and found that the friend had discovered a convenient and comfortable new alternative to tampons and pads; one that gave her life and everyday activities a whole new freedom during that time of the month.

It sounded too good to be true, and a little bit ‘out there’, but her friend’s enthusiasm encouraged Elizabeth and her physiotherapist business partner, Carol Morris, to give it a go.

“We were so inspired that we knew we had to share Lunette menstrual cups with everyone” says Ms Morris. Both Masters graduates, they worked tirelessly on a submission and research to have Lunette become the first medical grade silicone menstrual cup approved for retail in Australia.

In case this is all new for you, here is the lowdown. A menstrual cup is a re-usable alternative to pads and tampons. Made of medical silicone, the small cup is folded and inserted in a similar manner to a tampon. Once inserted it unfolds, and forms a seal. It cannot be felt and there are no strings or tags hanging out. It collects fluids rather than absorbing them, and is emptied every 12 hrs or when it is full (not 2 hourly like tampons). Then just wash/wipe and reuse. Costing from $50-70 each, most users will only need 1-2 in their menstruating lifetime.

Despite being around since the 1930’s, the menstrual cup was a very new concept to Australia. To get a feel for the market Ms Morris and Mrs Chapman conducted the first Australian Menstrual Cup Health Questionnaire that was posted on the national and international Lunette websites, menstrual cup forums and Australian online cup stores.

The international cup market was initially fuelled by a combination of Student activists (Europe), Alternative Lifestyles and Environmentalists (USA). The questionnaire covered user experience through a total of 691 menstrual cycles and revealed that Australian menstrual cup users come from diverse backgrounds – many were mothers, most exercise, medical conditions vary from none to chronic, over half were in paid employment and have tertiary education, and some are smokers and drinkers.

“For us, this was the most significant finding as it removed the current Australian stigma associated with cup users as being ‘alternative’ or ‘out-there hippies’” said Ms Morris.

However, fast forward 10 years and it is the forward-thinking student movements that are leading the way in the Australian sanitary revolution. With female empowerment coming to the forefront of the media, this new generation of menstruators will not be held back by a mere period. And coupled with waste-reduction, veganism and environmental movements, it is not surprising that menstrual cups are now the new norm when it comes to sanitary products. The war on period waste has well and truly begin.

“The problem we face as a nation is that our current way of dealing with disposable menstrual hygiene products isn’t sustainable” says Mrs Chapman. There are over six million menstruating people in Australia and each will use about 22 disposable sanitary products per period cycle – or 11,000-16,000 in their lifetime. “That’s one wheelie bin of waste per year, in stark comparison to a menstrual cup that will last 10 years” she says.

Added to this problem is that there are few studies that address the theme of menstrual waste in Australia. “The true environmental load and impact of our 6 million menstruators and their disposable and reusable waste is still a mystery” says Ms Morris. “While most will know the paddock to plate journey of their food, knowledge of the lifecycle of disposable sanitary items is lacking”.

Conventional pads contain plastics in their packaging and waterproof backings, as well as chemically treated cores to boost their absorbency. These can take up to 500years to decompose in landfill. And tampon users contribute over 140kg of waste to landfill. The majority of users, however, still ignorantly flush them down the toilet instead of using sanitary bins. Flushed sanitary items cause 75% of blocked drains in urban areas of Australia.

“There is also a loophole that allows many disposable sanitary products to be sold without listing their ingredients, despite being an internally use product that is in direct contact with skin and mucus membranes. Modern plant-based disposable sanitary companies are transparent about the exact composition of their pads and tampons, but for conventional plastic sanitary companies this area appears to be optional” Ms Morris notes.

To tackle the war on period waste head on, a two-pronged attack is required. The first is to ban plastic components from all disposable sanitary product. This is currently in action, with new companies such as Natracare, TOM, and OrganyC doing just that. All packaging and products are plant based, with the waterproof backing being made of a cellulose polymer that breaks down in 6-12 months in landfill.

The second is education about the link between menstrual products and the environment. Studies have shown that the majority of menstruators will continue to use the same sanitary product they were introduced to in early puberty. And for the majority of Australian these will be conventional plastic disposable.

The current school curriculum encourages teachers to include sustainability and environmental components in all areas of education. It was clear to Ms Morris and Mrs Chapman that action needed to be taken. Since 2007 they had received multitude of requests from both students and teaches asking for sample menstrual cups for education purposes.

In 2016 the Sustainable Period Project was born, a collaboration of some of the largest sustainable and reusable menstrual companies and artisanal communities. In a world-first, all Australian and New Zealand secondary schools will be provided with a free resource kit by 2020.

The war on period waste is rapidly gaining momentum in our younger generation. Educating at grassroots level and allowing the opportunity for students to consider alternatives that have important and far-reaching health, cost and environmental impacts needs to be at the forefront of this.

Today’s university students are empowered, educated, aware of their environment, more educated about their purchases and they know they have the ability to make sustainable period choices. “Our ultimate aim is to never again have the situation where a menstruating person hasn’t heard about biodegradable or modern reusables,” says Ms Morris.