Periods and Spaces

10 March 2017

Sanitary products have their own secret infrastructure. It operates through multiple instances of hiding. From the special mechanism by which used products magically disappear into bathrooms bins (“modesty tray” is the strait-laced industry term), to the general silence surrounding the environmental cost of industrial sanitary disposal, out of sight really is out of mind.

This is true of tampons and pads, the most common products on the market for menstruating people. But in the last decade the menstrual cup has emerged as a viable alternative. A foldable bell-shaped container made from latex or silicone, the cup collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it. When using the product, the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a potentially lethal condition associated with tampons, is practically zero. It’s reusable for up to 10 years, which means it’s cheaper and infinitely greener than its predecessors.

Although first patented in 1932, the menstrual cup is only beginning to go mainstream. This seems, in part, to be unfolding online: woke young women on Instagram are proselytising its merits, while a Kickstarter campaign for the first smart menstrual cup (inelegantly titled LoonCup) has raised more than three times its target funding. What, then, is the infrastructure of the menstrual cup? It requires no bins: the cup is emptied into the toilet, rinsed and re-inserted. It does, however, require access to clean water and private space. While many users prefer to empty it at home (most cups can stay in for 12 hours), it’s worth noting that in public institutions, offices, restaurants and airports, toilets with a wash-basin in each cubicle are rare. For cup users on the go – and perhaps more importantly for users who have nowhere to go (many major brands have charitable initiatives for homeless people and communities in the developing world) – this stymies use of the product.

There will be no overnight overhaul in how public bathrooms are laid out. But it might be expedient for architects, planners and legislators to ask if the way in which these spaces are designed promotes the use of expensive, hazardous and wasteful sanitary products over a design that has none of these drawbacks? If the answer is yes, then let’s begin to facilitate the better product.