I'm just trying to figure out eco-friendly period management and having a job.

Menstrual Cup at Work
Credit: Juan Moyano/Stocksy

It’s the middle of the day at work, and I’m on my period. I make my way to the bathroom, congratulating myself. Instead of using a tampon, I’m using a menstrual cup. I’m honorably doing my part for the environment, reducing the amount of trash I produce by way of my own vagina. I am basically a menstruating Mother Earth.

I work in a large office building, and the bathroom is often crowded. I wait my turn, and head into the stall. I remove my menstrual cup carefully, ready to do what the instructions advise: dump contents of cup into the toilet, flush, leave the stall, rinse out the cup in the sink, dry it off, return to the stall, put the cup back where it belongs.

It all seems straightforward enough.

I remove the cup, but my period is heavy. Blood...gets places. It smells just like you think it would. I hold the cup in one hand and pull up my pants with the other. I briefly think about resting the cup on the back of the toilet, but decide that is repulsive. There’s blood on my fingers, of course — I wipe it away and put the cup in a wad of toilet paper. I exit the stall, only to immediately run into a colleague. I make small talk while trying to conceal the fact that I’m carefully holding what is essentially a chalice stained with the dregs of my own blood. I go to the sink. A stranger next to me looks over and has a low-key reaction to the realization that, yes, those are indeed the remains of my period being washed down the sink. They say nothing, but I feel exposed and panicky. I turn around to hurry back to the safety of the stall, only to realize that it’s been taken. I accidentally drop my cup on the ground, and it bounces under the sink. I have to get on the floor and find it, and then wash it again. I head to the back of the short line of women waiting their turn, holding my cup, bleeding into my jeans. I have no idea how I got here, but I kind of wished I’d just used a tampon.

Don’t get me wrong; I am very keenly aware of the amount of trash that tampons and pads produce. In one lifetime, the average person with a period will use between 12,000 and 15,000 tampons, pads, and pantyliners. Globally every year, approximately 45 billion feminine hygiene products are disposed of. That is a nearly inconceivable volume of non-recyclable trash — and all of the packaging, applicators, and used product ends up in waterways and landfills. I want to successfully navigate my menstrual cup for a lower-impact period, but I haven’t been able to use it without anxiety. Without access to a private bathroom at work (or at bars and restaurants, or really any other establishment outside of my home), the cup feels like a lot to contend with and sometimes, fumbling around with it just feels gross. Perhaps some people with periods feel totally comfortable ceremoniously dumping and cleansing a silicon goblet containing their own uterine lining, but I’m just not — especially when there are other people around to watch.

And therein lies my constant struggle: wanting to use a menstrual cup and reduce the amount of trash I produce, but absolutely loathing the process. Without access to a private bathroom and a birthing doula-level of comfort with uterine blood, it feels like a gruesome chore, which is the last thing I want to deal with during an already trying time of the month.

After last month’s hellish menstrual cup fail, I talked to friends and colleagues and realized that I’m not alone. The notion of using a menstrual cup is daunting for many of us, despite cup evangelists relentlessly singing its praises. I’ve heard stories about full cups falling onto the ground and splattering, blood splashing on clothes, and strangers in the bathroom making commentary about “not wanting to see that.” Yep: if handling a collection of your own period blood didn’t make you feel gross or stressed out enough, Susan from marketing is there to remind you that you are, indeed, disgusting.

I talked to Carinne Chambers-Saini, CEO of Diva International Inc, the company that makes DivaCup, to see if there are any practical steps to make using a menstrual cup in a public restroom a more private experience.

“One of the most important tips to remember is that it takes many people a few cycles to feel truly comfortable with inserting and removing the cup,’ Chambers-Saini tells me. “If you’re unable to wash it after removal (when using a public restroom), wash your hands before entering the stall, empty the contents in the toilet and simply use a dry or damp tissue to clean the cup. If you find you need more than tissue, bringing a water bottle in the stall with you can be used to moisten the toilet paper and help you rinse the cup as well.”

So DivaCup says the answer is that simple: Bringing water into the stall to wash your cup alone, hovering over a toilet. Lunette, another menstrual cup brand, suggests on their website to wipe the cup down with one of their prepackaged cup wipes if you don’t have access to water or don’t want to leave the stall. On menstrual cup forums, people weigh the pros and cons of simply dumping the contents of the cup and reinserting without rinsing it at all. Pro: You don’t need to leave the stall, and the cup spends less time outside of your body and exposed to germs. Con: By the end of the day, it’s going to be pretty damn gross.

All solid advice, depending on your comfort levels, but it doesn’t totally solve the problem — in fact, bringing a water bottle or additional cup-specific wipe into the stall with you introduces yet another variable to the process that could potentially go wrong. There’s also no insight on what to do if things do go wrong (which they sometimes will, because life). Perhaps I’d feel more guided in my use of a menstrual cup if the websites would tell me what to do when I inevitably spill my period onto my white sneakers.

On the one hand, there’s simply no denying that the choice to use a menstrual cup is one that will significantly reduce the amount of waste you produce. However, it’s also an imperfect option. Menstrual cups are the reusable straws of our vaginal canals. We know that we should probably use them, but if you spend a lot of time in public, not being able to use a tampon — or plastic straw — feels like something devised to test our patience. So if you’re out there, bleeding into a tiny silicon cup that will eventually inspire the type of hyper-specific anxiety that comes with public displays of period management, I want you to know that I see you — except if we’re in the bathroom and you’re cleaning out your menstrual cup, and then I’ll pretend I don’t.