One Question Quiz
In the greater scheme of things, this is not the answer to our planet’s woes.
In the greater scheme of things, this is not the answer to our planet’s woes.

SocietyApril 19, 2024

Hear me out: You can shove your reusable period products

In the greater scheme of things, this is not the answer to our planet’s woes.
In the greater scheme of things, this is not the answer to our planet’s woes.

Yes, they’re better for the environment. No, that’s not a good enough reason for me to use them.

Once every 26 days or so, my period arrives, and if struck by an act of God, I am caught red-crotched without products. How, after 17 years of this, do I still find myself at Splash Planet on the Fantasy Express, free-bleeding past the Master Blaster, Sky Castle Screamer, and Pirate Fortress? If I could tell you that, then I could also articulate the particular kind of self-loathing I experienced while, standing in the Newtown Vinnie’s changing room, I shoved some old receipts in my underpants.

I can’t, though. And so instead, every month, sweatshirt strategically positioned around my waist, I hiss – at workmates, at friends, at the kind stranger at Queenstown airport – “Do you have any pads or tampons?” 

For a long time, I could count on these women to come through for me. Like drug dealers, they’d surreptitiously hand over the goods, and I’d scurry off to the bathroom to use them. Increasingly, though, this is not the case. “Sorry,” they’ll say, shaking their heads and smiling; sadly, smugly. “I only have my Moon Cup.”

I get it. For a number of menstruating folks, reusable period products are empowering. They’re comfortable, convenient, economical and political: simply by placing a Rudie between your legs, you join in the fight against Big Tampon, and do the environment a solid. As a self-proclaimed hippie who’s big on virtue signalling, for this latter reason alone I know I should fully embrace them. Yet this is why I resent them. 

Yes, swapping to reusable period products is better for the planet, but it’s also something that disproportionately impacts women. The upfront expense, the ongoing maintenance, the discomfort of chatting to your boss while you wash out your Moon Cup in the level four toilets: most men don’t understand this, both because most of them don’t get periods and there is also comparatively less pressure on men to consume responsibly. Reusable diapers, natural cleaning products, and the “uplifting” bar shampoo I keep buying even though it makes me look like I’ve dunked my head in a deep-fryer are all products that could be used by anyone, but are largely peddled to women.

But the gendered pressure to be a “sustainable” consumer aside, if you zoom out, the environmental benefits of using reusable period products are small fry. If you could sweat ten years a piece out of four menstrual cups, you’d save yourself and the world 11,000 tampons and if you reject disposables entirely, reduce your carbon emissions by 0.212 tonnes of CO2 equivalent over a lifetime. Yes, this is an impressive feat for your uterus’ lining.

Yet, every year, New Zealand generates nearly 17. 5 million tonnes of waste, with almost 12.6 million of that sent to landfills. Around half of the total waste that ends up in landfills is demolition and construction waste. This includes materials like concrete, wood, metal, glass, brick, and the 70s’ shag carpet Bruce the Master Builder has just ripped out of your bathroom.

Not the worst culprit in the landfill.

Construction waste is funnelled in Landfill Type 2, while over in Landfill Type 1 you can find household, commercial, and “industrial or institutional waste,” which sounds like a euphemism for “vats of dismembered rats.” In 2021, wood, garden and food waste accounted for 27.3% of the junk in Type 1 Landfills, with food alone accounting for 9%. That’s because the average Kiwi household throws away 12.2% of the food they buy each year, and fruit, vege and bread scraps make up around a third of our household waste each week. While day-old sourdough is a sweet win for the seagulls that hang around the Southern Landfill, it’s bad for the 14% of New Zealanders experiencing food insecurity and it’s bad for the earth, too, releasing methane.

But zoom out even further and you’ll find that, in 2023, landfills accounted for only 1.3% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which since 2010 have hovered around the equivalent of 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. When it comes to warming the planet, meat and dairy farming, and petrol retail, are New Zealand’s heavy hitters. Last year, Fonterra landed the dubious title of New Zealand’s Single Biggest Emitter Three Years in a Row, and together, ten companies generated more than half our country’s emissions. 

None of these companies make period products. None of them are headed by women, either.

New Zealand, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. We can be carefree when we’ve outsourced the embodied emissions of our Carefree production to Dover, Delaware, and the evidence is unequivocal: reusable period products, when reused as intended, are much kinder on the planet than single-use ones.

But personal responsibility only gets us so far if we don’t have corporate and state responsibility. Last year, when Fonterra was crowned New Zealand’s Single Biggest Emitter Three Years in a Row, it also reported an after-tax profit of $1.6 billion, up 170% from the year before. Yet agricultural emissions are not part of our ETS. The plan to agree an alternative pricing system for these emissions has been pushed back from 2025 to “2030 by the latest.” Meanwhile, Z energy, our second biggest emitter after Fonterra, is facing legal action from Consumer NZ for claiming they are “well on track to achieving carbon reduction targets,” despite their fossil-fuel sales and carbon emissions increasing.

As for the government, while it has announced intentions to introduce a 12 cent fuel tax for 2027, it has also incongruously agreed to end the Fuel Excise Duty in Auckland, canned the clean car rebate and axed public transport subsidies for children and young people. When it comes to food waste, our country’s Waste Strategy says we need to implement the types of standardised curb-side systems only Auckland and Christchurch currently have. When it comes to demolition waste, it says we need more data.

What does all this mean? 

It means that if you forget your Moon Cup, it’s okay to pick up some Libras on your way back to the Napier Beach Top 10 Holiday Park. It also means that we – all of us, not just women – need to think about how we vote, locally, nationally, and with our wallets. 

After all, this is a political issue, not one of individual consumer responsibility. And in a fair democracy, it’s everyone’s job to take out the trash.

Keep going!