Ladies in conservation – a “simple swap” which might be a brilliant breakthrough

There might be people who read this and can immediately relate – for others, I’ll try to paint a picture:

It’s bitingly cold but you’re boiling hot. You’re dead set on getting the job done, and in awe of the fact that you’re allowed to use a chainsaw and fell trees. You’re getting increasingly tired from carting the weighty chainsaw about, whilst using it strongly and confidently enough to cut straight and safely, and be aware of kickback. The essential chainsaw-proof gear makes you feel protected but its weight is dragging you down. The boots (hefty lumps in their own right to stop you accidentally chopping a foot off) are a size and a half too big because they’re the smallest size available, which doesn’t make it easy to clamber over tree stumps and bits of dead hedge. The thick Kevlar trousers fit badly due to only coming in “men’s”, which also makes it more difficult to manoeuvre about the rough terrain. You love every minute despite the struggles (except maybe the temperamental pull-cord on the saw) and are proud of yourself. You know your own strength but feel like you have to prove yourself due to almost daily comments questioning your strength and ability (usually misguided members of the public trying to be friendly, but remarkable in their frequency). The last thing you need to think about or show “weakness” by excusing yourself for in this male-dominated sector, is the monthly issue of menstruation.

Content “warning” – Female-specific issues below. If you’re not interested, then give it a miss!

The above is meant to represent some of my experiences as a new chainsaw-user last year. Over the coppicing season, my job involves helping with coppicing at a wood near to the site at which I’m usually based. There’s no toilet at the site, which got me thinking about how best to deal with periods whilst working there. Don’t get me wrong, I believe vehemently in equality and I’m all for openness and understanding, but it’s not always particularly easy to implement, depending on your own personality and who you work with. I recently read an article that suggested that perhaps sanitary products would be freely available like toilet paper in workplace toilets, and wouldn’t made out to be “gross” and taboo if it was men who had periods. I’d love to see how things would be if the roles were reversed. But the availability of menstrual products in a workplace where you have no toilet, becomes less relevant than how can you cope with having to check for blood leakage and changing sanitary products every couple/few hours. Due to illness which started over a year ago, my cycle stopped and I got through a whole coppicing season without having to worry about it. Now I’m on the mend and the next coppicing season is fast approaching, I’ve started thinking about how I’ll deal with it. It is possible (though impractical) for me to leave the site to a nearby service station, and if you need to do this during work then it is perfectly reasonable and you can’t be denied access, no matter how impractical or “annoying” it might seem to yourself or anyone else. But for the reasons I mentioned above, I’d personally rather be able to make it through the day on site, also without compromising my health or comfort. I found that the solution is also a money and environment-saver – win-win!

Ditching the Disposables

I’ve always hated using disposable menstrual products – you have to make sure you keep a stash of them with you, they create masses of waste, you buy them time and time again, and on top of that they can easily fail. Pads can move, fold over, unstick, stick to and irritate skin, sometimes provide insufficient cover to avoid leakage, and you have to check and change them very frequently. I personally always worry about micro-“debris” being left behind from tampons, and they come across to me as somehow unhealthy as I don’t like all the absorbed “stuff” being held in place. I am also paranoid about the risk of toxic shock syndrome, which also means they must be changed frequently. On top of this, there’s an inherent risk in any practical work that unexpected problems can spring themselves on you right at the end of the day – amongst other things, I’ve dented and deflated a trailer wheel on a tree stump on the way out of the woods, I’ve had colleagues park in front of me and then get their vehicles stuck in the mud, I’ve had to wait for colleagues who have bumped a bit of tractor-mounted equipment whilst parking and got it accidentally caught up whilst I’m supposed to be driving them back to “base”, and helped out when the last tree of the day gets hung up. Whilst I never know if things like this are going to come up and delay me, I’m uncomfortable with the thought of using tampons, with their prescribed maximum eight-hour limit.

Despite the issues, I’ve been using disposable products for years as I never knew about any alternatives. I’ve recently discovered two, and already know I am not looking back:

  1. Menstrual cups – I’d not even heard of these before, but get the impression that there’s a view of “weirdness” surrounding them. I thought the same, but once I started looking into it, they seemed like an amazing alternative. You only have to buy one and it will last you up to ten years – ten years worth of money spent on disposable products and ten years worth of waste products saved. I did a tonne of research before deciding to try one. There’s an amazing website called “Put A Cup In It” as well as reviews and videos on YouTube which can help you decide if its something you want to try and which one to choose.
    • CONSIDERATIONS: I’ve studied Biomedical Science, seen post mortems and can deal with dead animals. I have a high “ick” threshold and am totally comfortable with my own body and most things “medical”, and find the cup’s collection of blood kind of fascinating. But for some there might be a bit of a “grossness” factor to get over. I personally find it so much cleaner and easier than other methods, though. There’s also a bit of a learning curve in starting to use them (in physically getting it in, in the right place, and getting it out). There are plenty of useful videos online, and I managed absolutely fine despite nurse practitioners being unable to do cervical examinations on me without causing me pain, so they really can’t be that extreme, just different.
    • THE BEST THING: Ease of life – you can leave it in for 12 hours safely and it can generally collect everything in that time if needed (depending on its capacity etc). In combination with the method below, I genuinely feel “safe” and comfortable all day. It is also completely safe to use when you’re not actually bleeding, so it avoids having to wastefully use sanitary towels “just in case” whilst waiting for it to start.
  2. Period pants – again, I’d not even heard of them. They effectively act the same as a super absorbent pad which can be used throughout the day, many of which have much better coverage than disposable pads. The only difference is that they are way more comfortable, can’t become dislodged and irritate, and provide much better peace of mind. Having a few pairs of these to account for the times some pairs are drying could replace years-worth of disposable products as well as making life easier. As there’s a bit of a learning curve in using cups correctly, I feel best using these as a back up at the same time.

Long Term Money Saving

Buying reusable products obviously comes with an initial investment. A menstrual cup can be ~£15-25 on average, and period pants vary massively depending on the supplier (I spent £20 on one pair, and then later, £20 on a pack of five pairs, but I’ve not had a chance to compare them yet). I was lucky to be able to make that initial investment, and in the long run it will save me money.

If I used about 40 disposable products a month at about 11p-12p each…

  • I’ll be saving roughly £4.45 a month
  • I’ll get my money back within a year and 4 months
  • After that, I’ll be saving about £53 a year
  • That’ll also be about 480 fewer disposable products ending up in landfill each year, not to mention the packaging…
  • …or about 4800 over 10 years!

Obviously the numbers are only estimates and will vary from person to person, but the more people decide to make a switch from disposables, the more the benefits will mount up.

There are plenty of conservation jobs which involve working on remote sites. As well as coppicing, I’m often asked to help out with jobs in other remote areas throughout the year (brushcutting, log deliveries, haymaking, fence-building, knapsack spraying…), so this must be a “problem” which is fairly widespread. I’m amazed to have discovered these options which mean now I won’t have to be a slave to my period. If anyone out there is reading this and can relate, I’d be interested to know any wisdom you might be able to share with a relative newbie!

N.B. You absolutely can’t be denied access to a toilet when it’s possible for you to reach one and you need it, so don’t worry if you are aspiring towards a conservation job and need to stick with disposable products for any reason – I’ve never had any problems and it is not something which can be held against you. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise then I’d advise you contact your People Support team, Human Resources or equivalent – the fact that you are female cannot be used to hold you back, no matter what extra challenges you might be faced with, and in my experience, people are reasonable and understanding in this “area”. I just personally feel that these products will make my life easier, as well as making me happy that I’m making less waste and saving money in the long run!

2 thoughts on “Ladies in conservation – a “simple swap” which might be a brilliant breakthrough

Add yours

    1. Thank you so much! I am happy that you think so! Obviously what product/s to use to deal with it is a very personal choice, but I hope this post can help anyone that does read who’s not really aware of reusable (and in my opinion, much more practical!) options 🙂

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