Norway should promote menstrual cups
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The average woman uses about 12,000 to 15,000 single-use sanitary products in her lifetime. These sanitary products are expensive, wasteful, and sometimes—ironically—unsanitary. However, like food, sanitary products are necessities for women after puberty. Fortunately, an alternative to single-use products exists on the market. The menstrual cup is a reusable bell-shaped device that collects menstrual fluid. Most women do not use menstrual cups, because in developed countries, schools provide young women with tampon and pad samples as part of their puberty education. Marketing studies revealed that offering free samples during education shapes preferences and subsequent purchase of tampons and pads. Therefore, Norwegian public health officials should promote the menstrual cup in puberty education, because it is healthier, less wasteful, and more affordable than single-use sanitary products.
In the early 20th century, doctors endorsed commercial menstrual products such as tampons and pads as part of feminine hygiene management. However, in the 1980s, symptoms including fever, skin rash, and even death in healthy women surged in association with highly absorbent tampons. These symptoms are related to a condition called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) caused by toxins excreted from the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (staph), which 20 to 30 percent of the human population have as part of their normal skin flora.
Studies have found that tampons and pads foster more S. aureus growth and toxin production than do menstrual cups. Although a recent study shows that S. aureus growth and toxin production is higher in menstrual cups than with tampons, only one TSS case has been documented. The overall number of TSS cases in menstruating women has declined in recent years, but it is still most prevalent in girls and women between the ages of 13 and 24. The same study suggests that the decreased rate of TSS in older women might relate to decreasing tampon use. Even though TSS is now rare, it still occurs in more than 1 in every 100,000 young women. Therefore, public health officials should endorse healthier sanitary products like menstrual cups in school.
Menstrual cups are not only healthier, but also less wasteful than single-use sanitary products. Waste generated from single-use sanitary products includes cardboard packaging, plastic wrapping, and the absorbant material. Some of these might be recycled, but generally the waste ends in a landfill or incinerator. Because tampons and pads last from 2 to 5 hours, a woman can dispose of more than 200 products a year. Pads generate more waste than tampons, because they require more non-biodegradable material. Caitlyn Shaye Weir, in scholarly research conducted at Dalhousie University in Canada in 2015, estimated that a woman who only uses tampons produces not quite one pound of waste annually. That may not seem like a lot, but according to Statistics Norway, there are around 1 million Norwegian women between the ages of 16 and 44. This equates to some 420 tons of annual waste, which is 25 times more than it would have been produced if women only use menstrual cups. Menstrual cups create less waste because they consist of medical grade silicone that last for 10 years. Hence, if public health officials include menstrual cups in puberty education to promote higher cup use, it will also minimize waste.
In addition to the excessive waste, single-use sanitary products are also more expensive than menstrual cups. According to Weir, a Canadian woman spends an average of CAD 85 (NOK 550) annually on single-use sanitary products. This means for 30 years of menstruation; a woman will spend NOK 16,500 (almost $2,000) on single-use sanitary products in her lifetime. Assuming that the menstrual cup is replaced every five to 10 years, for a period of 10 years, a woman will save between 86 and 92 percent in respect to tampons.
What we like when we’re young can influence our purchase choices as adults. Menstrual cups are better for health, the environment, and the wallet, but they are not widely used. As young women receive free samples of tampons and pads in school, that establishes preference for future purchase. Therefore, Norwegian public health officials should provide a free menstrual cup to all girls as part of their puberty education.
Ibbie He is a BSc student in International Environment and Development studies at NMBU. She is currently interested in possible solutions to environmental issues that involve building social capital, establishing environmental ethics, and reconstructing Western power structure.
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This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.