How to Have a Zero Waste Period
May 25, 2018 | Kathryn Kellogg
Last Updated on June 8, 2022
Even if I’m speaking at a middle school, one of the first questions I always get asked, “Is how do you handle your periods?”
May 28th is Menstrual Hygiene Day, so I thought it was the perfect time for a complete guide to zero waste periods.
There are a number of ways to have a zero waste period, but first let’s talk about the problem with conventional products.
the problem with disposable tampons and pads:
A lot of the mainstream tampon and pad brands use a combination of bleached rayon, conventional cotton, and contain plastic. The average pad contains the equivalent of four plastic bags.
Beyond the plastic they also contain dioxins, furans, fragrance, all which are endocrine disruptors and can actually make your cramps and periods worse!
Conventional cotton also uses a lot of pesticides, things you probably wouldn’t want to put in such a sensitive area. Once you’re done with them, they go to a landfill. We use a lot of these products, so it adds up to a lot of trash over the years.
When I was getting my IUD placed, the first thing I did was order five pairs of Thinx. They’re period panties, and they’re amazing!
They’re officially my go-to period product!
They look just like regular undies, but they absorb blood up to two tampons worth depending on the style. I have a couple of their thongs for lighter days, and a couple of the heavy duty pairs.
They’re super comfortable, cute, and I never have to worry about leaking! Plus, I love how the company prioritizes giving back. That’s always something I look for when I make purchases.
Thinx was nice enough to offer the readers of Going Zero Waste $10 off if you use this link!
They’re running a huge sale this weekend in honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day so if it’s something you’ve been on the fence about purchasing, now’s a great time!
Period panties work similar to cloth pads. After you wear them, you rinse them. Hang to dry and then throw in your lingerie bag.
Do not put these undies in the dryer!! They need to hang dry.
Cloth pads work just like disposable pads. There are different sizes you can use depending on your flow. They make the long ones or the tiny spotting size.
There’s a snap, and you can snap the pads in place over your underwear.
Once they’re full, you rinse them. I put mine in a bucket to save water. I keep a bucket in the shower to catch water, you can read more about it in this post My 5 Zero Waste Shower Essentials.
I wring them until most of the blood is out. Then I rinse with clean water and hang to dry. Once they’re dry, I throw them into the hamper and wash them in my lingerie bag.
I put any clothing that shouldn’t be put in the dryer in my lingerie bag – just in case!
I am one lucky lady and don’t have to do laundry because my sweet husband does it all for me, and he knows the lingerie bag means NO DRYER.
You can read an entire post about zero waste periods and cloth pads.
Using a menstrual cup was pretty life changing. My only regret is that I didn’t start using one sooner.
Right before I got married, I got an IUD, and while you can use a cup with an IUD, I’m way too scared to try. You can pull your IUD out with one. EEK.
Menstrual cups are different in that they don’t absorb blood, they catch it. They’re made of medical grade silicone and stay in place using suction.
The rims of the cup rest on your vaginal wall applying the slightest bit of pressure which actually reduces cramps. YES. You read that right. Menstrual cups can help reduce cramps.
Better for the environment and less cramping!? Sign me up.
Menstrual cups only need to be changed every 12 hours and hold two super tampons worth of blood.
Once the cup is full, you can use the stem to help you kegel it down. Once it’s down, you can press on one side the cup to pop the suction. Dump your blood into the toilet and then rinse the cup out and reinsert.
12 hours is typically enough time to change it in the privacy of a bathroom that includes a sink for rinsing, but if you’re stuck in a public stall without access to a sink, you can always wipe it with a little bit of TP and re-insert while you wait till you have a little more privacy to wash it.
There are a lot of different types of menstrual cups to choose from, but I wound up going with a blossom cup* because it has a love it or your money back. I was not crazy about wearing tampons so I wasn’t sure a cup was going to work for me.
There is definitely a breaking in period. It took me about three months to really get the hang of getting it inserted, but once I cracked the code it was sheer magic!
The one thing that really helped in the beginning was using lube to figure out how to get it inserted.
I use a DIY, Zero Waste Lube and I have a blog post all about it.
For more information about how to use a menstrual cup see the full blog post.
If you’re really not ready to make the leap to reusables, go for organic.
I haven’t done a ton of research into organic cotton pads or tampons, but I know that Kali offers tampons where everything is compostable!
The wrapper, the applicator, and the tampon itself.
Once you’re done, you can throw them into your backyard compost bin so they won’t be sitting around in a landfill.
a problem beyond trash:
Beyond the trash problem, I think it’s really important to highlight some of the other problems we might not think of…. like a lot of people don’t have access to any menstrual products.
Poor menstrual hygiene can be deadly. In developing countries infections and cervical cancer are huge problems because they have to use other materials like dirty, unwashed rags, scraps of old clothing, foam mattresses, toilet paper, leaves, even banana fibers.
All of these are unhygienic and ineffective.
Access to menstrual hygiene products is difficult for lower income families. Many have reported not using their food stamps for food but for menstrual products. It’s also an issue for the homeless.
Since Menstrual Hygiene Day is coming up, I wanted to also list a couple of brands that give back and organizations where you can donate to help.
If you’ve been having zero waste periods for a while, you know how much money you’ve saved on not having to buy tampons and pads all the time! Maybe, you could set aside a little bit of that money to help those in need.
Thinx – “Period poverty affects people around the globe: from Nepal and Uganda to our hometown, New York City. Together with our partners we’re committed to expanding access to period products and support services for underserved people.” Thinx has donated over 5,000 pairs of period panties and over $350,000.
Luna Pads – Works with Pads4Girls and has provided over 17,000 girls and women in 18 nations with 100,000+ reusable menstrual products.
The Homeless Period – “For homeless women, it really is that dreaded time of the month. With limited or no access to sanitary products, they’re often forced to go without. This initiative believes that tampons and towels should be made available through homeless shelters, the same way the government provides condoms. To show your support, share the site, sign the petition, or donate a tampon.”
Days For Girls – They provide period packs with undies and pads to help keep more girls in school. “Days for Girls volunteers and enterprises have reached more than ONE MILLION women and girls around the world – giving them back days of dignity, health, and opportunity through menstrual health solutions and education.”
what to do with old products?
If you’re like me, when you decided to switch to zero waste products, you might have had an arsenal of pads and tampons. Instead of using up your supply, I would recommend donating them to someone in need.
Most homeless shelters are always looking for extra menstrual products. Here’s a great map to help you find one near you.
This post contains affiliate linking. It’s denoted with an asterisk. This means if you choose to purchase one of these items I will make a slight commission for referring you. You can read more on my disclosure page.
First of all, I love your blog – it has showed me that it’s not that difficult to create less and less waste, especially when you’re a beginner! Thank you so much for that!
But one thing I’m struggling with are “dailies”, those really light pads. I need those every day because of vaginal discharge. Is there a zero waste aternative to them that suits thongs or is simply smaller and lighter? I haven’t been able to find any yet, but I don’t want to use the regular ones anymore… and my menstrual cup doesn’t hold all of it back either, even though it works really well on my period. I would be happy about any kind of advice!
Luna, have you checked Etsy for lighter, pantyliner style pads? Or could you barter with a loved one who sews, since you’ll probably need a big stash of them?
Years and years ago, I got an Etsy seller to make five thong-style pads for me in BLOOD RED flannel. Still feel like a genius.
I’ve had an IUD and menstrual cup for more than a decade. I know that everyone who writes about mentrual cups mentions the possibility of them sucking out your IUD, but this seems extremely unlikely to me.
Period panties would be great for this, sometimes I wear the thongs for that, but you could also buy the pantyliner style cloth pads.
I switched to a cup over two years ago and loved it. I was really unsure at first because I’d used a tampon about two times when I was 14 and hated it – probably didn’t help that I had NO idea what I was doing – so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the cup, but I love it and wish they were spoken about more outside of the zero waste and reducing waste community. I hope girls are being taught about all these options at school now.
I totally agree, I think cups are becoming more mainstream!
So the Thinx panties can be used without anything else and they actually work as if they were pads? Which style would you recommend for a heavy period? I’m not from the US so I will check if I can get them on Amazon.
Thank you for being such a great inspiration!
I love the hiphuggers! They hold two tampons worth, and they really do work! I wear them alone even on the first day of my period, but I do typically have to change pairs at least once on day 1.
Thanks for the wonderful info, Kathryn! One question, why have both reusable pass and thinx undies? Kinda redundant, right?
My husband ALSO does the laundry in our house, and we ALSO do the lingerie bag trick. I actually sewed some secondhand zippers on an old mesh laundry bag that I had cut up, and so I have 4 bags. Between that and "if it’s not in the pile, don’t wash it" rule, my clothes gotten shrunk in years! So glad someone else knows the trick. It’s really life changing.
Thanks for the in depth review! On your description for Kali products, you mention that everything is compostable. However, I can’t find any information on that on their site – are they really compostable? Thanks!
Ruby Cup (https://rubycup.com) is another great example for companies that give back: for every menstrual cup that is bought, a second one is donated to a girl in need! I bought my menstrual cup there and i am super happy with it.
Thanks, this is really helpful! I would like to know how you handle these products while traveling? I recently switched to the underwear and really don’t want to go back to the disposable products (even just for one month while traveling)…
I want to switch to a zero waste period lifestyle because i am going to be living off grid in the next two years and i need to find something for super heavy flow. I go anemic each month, I’m talking a HEAVY flow. What would you recommend?
Hey, Katie. I have recently started using Lysteda (Tranexamic Acid). It helps you clot and you only take it for a few days on your period. That has helped tremendously with the excessive flow. I also tried the diva cup this month and like it. Leaked only the first night. I also got some reusable pads on Amazon, but the cup is so good that they aren’t much more than a backup.
Menstrual cups can cause toxic shock syndrom so I wouldn’t recommmend it. Because why wpuld anybody put their precious body at such a risk? Here is proof 🙂 "A confirmed case of toxic shock syndrome associated with the use of a menstrual cup",Michael A Mitchell, MD,1 Steve Bisch, MD,2 Shannon Arntfield, MD FRCSC,2 and Seyed M Hosseini-Moghaddam, MD MPH FRCPC, 2015 Jul-Aug https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4556184/
Please do not cause fear or panic. This is a single case known, and the woman reported already had health issues that made her predisposed. The silicon with which the cups are made are medical grade and can stay inside the body safely as per instructions. As long as you are sanitary, follow instructions, and do not leave the cup in for days without cleaning/changing, it is a great waste free, cost effective period product. Of course, anyone who is considering it, should consult their doctor if they have any questions or concerns, and not take internet comments as the ultimate truth.
Thank you for this post & the comments board discussion! While I admire the intention & understand they may work for some, the cup/panties/cloth pads raise hygiene concerns for me personally. Have switched to 100% compostable organic cotton Natracare pads (including the pad adhesive & all packaging, which are a corn-based product like compostable flatware you see at forward thinking fast food restaurants). It’s certainly important to consider the global perspective on period poverty, though IDK how I feel about the panties from that angle either… great intention, but does the product [specifically the big famous one with lots of pretty marketing who can’t stop advertising to you on Pinterest] really work, and result in fewer health problems in the developing world? I’m no expert, but even I can glean the research is tenuous at best, feels almost bordering on green-washy. And I guess, who cares about research if the items are doing some good in women’s lives, even by sparking an article + discussion like this one then that’s good!
Have also encountered some reviews that the panties are ineffectual on heavier cycles, though haven’t tried them myself. Really don’t mind the idea of the clean up, but it’s got to be hygienic during use, and do the absorption job properly. For my vote, it’s organic & compostable pads in packaging of the same.