Museum of 21st Century Design
Photo credit: Anna Shvets
Flexible medical-grade silicone, latex, or a thermoplastic isomer shaped like a bell. Early menstrual cups were made of rubber.
Ongoing research into the working conditions of current manufacturers.
In 1932, the midwifery group McClasson and Perkins patented the menstrual cup in the USA. The actress Leona Chalmers patented a more commercially viable version in 1937. Several patents from the past 80 years exist, each of which adjusts the shape or material of the cup. They are manufactured by people employed at The Tassaway, The Keeper, Mooncup, and many others in 2023.
A menstrual cup is a reusable product that collects period fluid when inserted into a vagina.
Costs vary widely, from the equivalent of US $0.7 to $47 per cup in 2022. Some NGOs exist that distribute menstrual cups at no cost to users.
Menstrual cups allow people to hygienically and consistently manage periods across the globe and are particularly helpful for women who lack access to reliable waste processing facilities. Reliable period care is required for humans to maintain regular public life.
Ongoing research into the energy used when manufacturing menstrual cups and the decreased waste generated when replacing tampons and pads with menstrual cups. Menstrual cups can last decades before they go into a landfill. Blood collected in menstrual cups can be used to fertilize plants.
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A Design to Decrease Toxic Waste
Most menstruating people in the USA use around 11,000 tampons over their lifetimes. Menstruation is when the uterus sheds blood and tissue through the vagina, and many girls, women, agender, non-binary, and transmasculine people menstruate. This group comprises tens of millions of people, and, every year, twenty billion disposable tampons and pads end up in American landfills.
Standard menstruation products cause humans and the environment harm. These products are often made of plastic, rayon, bleach, and other chemicals that erode bodies and land. For instance, bleaching with chlorine leaves dioxin behind, which is linked to cancer. The FDA says that trace amounts of dioxin are acceptable — but it doesn’t account for our cumulative exposure. Plastic applicators end up in landfills, roadsides, rivers, and oceans. People can become directly sick from these products. When left in longer than the recommended time, tampons can cause people to become ill with Toxic Shock Syndrome from exotoxin-producing cocci, according to the MDS Manual.
Conversely, menstrual cups are reusable, made of safe materials, and available on the mass market. The cups are soft, pliable silicone forms that people insert into a vagina to catch the menstrual blood and then remove and wash as needed. Bacteria don’t grow well in silicone, and the material can last for decades. According to Allied Market Research, the global menstrual cup market accounted for around $632 million in 2018 and is expected to reach $963 million by 2026, registering a compound annual growth rate of 5.3% from 2019 to 2026. That’s a lot of people choosing menstrual cups. Supporting Equity where Gender,
Geography, and Class Divide
Dignity, a human right defined by the United Nations, and menstruation are inseparable for those with periods. Societies across the globe believe that menstruation is dirty or shameful and prohibit the activities of menstruating people. Unicef explains how a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products restricts mobility and personal choices, affects attendance in school and participation in community life, and compromises safety by causing additional stress and anxiety.
In June 2022, the WHO called for “menstrual health to be recognized, framed and addressed as a health and human rights issue, not a hygiene issue.” The organization’s report explains that grass-roots workers and activists from the global south drew attention to the experience of shame, barriers, and consequences for people who do not have the means to manage menstruation; it’s a situation that limits their rights to education, work, water, sanitation, and health. A report from the United Nations agrees. It states,
“Menstruation is intrinsically related to human dignity – when people cannot access safe bathing facilities and safe and effective means of managing their menstrual hygiene, they are not able to manage their menstruation with dignity. Menstruation-related teasing, exclusion and shame also undermine the principle of human dignity.”
Those without access to menstruation products could lose three to eight years of public life — the total amount of time spent menstruating across a lifetime — without access to tools to manage their health.
And yet, people across the world suffer a lack of access. Examples of insufficient access can be found in every corner. The World Bank estimates that about “500 million women and girls struggle to access menstrual products or safe, private, hygienic spaces in which to use them.” This is a global problem.
Some organizations are using menstrual cups and other tools to fight back. In India, less than 20% of the 350 million menstruating people have access to standard menstrual products, as the company Onpery reports. Onpery designs and manufactures ecologically sound menstrual products such as menstrual cups, period underwear, and biodegradable pads with an eye to labor practices and equitable distribution. The company states the number of menstruating people without access to standard products increases to 52% in cities. Nearly half of even urban-based women use unhygienic methods for period protection, making them vulnerable to health issues and excluded from public life. In Rwanda, 18% of women and girls miss work and school because they cannot afford menstrual products. That’s a potential GDP loss of $215 per woman every year in Rwanda, the company Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) reports. SHE helps women by supporting social businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable menstrual products to empower those with menstrual cycles. In addition to global injustices that derive from menstrual taboos, they also suffer economic harm.
M21D and Menstrual Cups
Menstrual cups fit exactly within the values of M21D. They promote a healthy environment and can be used to secure human rights for those who menstruate. They’re also accessible and on the mass market, which encourages the museum’s ongoing research.
Menstrual Cup Market, Allied Market Research
Menstrual hygiene, Unicef
Menstruation and human rights - Frequently asked questions, United Nations Population Fund
OnperyPeriod equity: What it is and why it matters, Harvard Health Publishing
Policy Reforms For Dignity, Equality, and Menstrual Health, The World Bank
Removing the shame and stigma from menstruation, United Nations Human Rights
The She26 Campaign, Sustainable Health EnterpriseToxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), MSD Manual
WHO statement on menstrual health and rights, World Health Organization