I live in Temuco, Chile. And I can say for a fact, that this country was not ready for a world-hitting pandemic – just as none of us really were. The active cases number in all 15 of our regions continues to rise, people continue to become ill and affected by the virus, the need for isolation, and the repercussions of economical shutdown.
In times of crisis and need, it is normal that we disconnect from wider problems. Issues like sustainability and social action come down second-place, as our immediate needs for sustenance, physical and mental health feel more important
Vale, a young woman in Chile on the other hand, tries to juggle with both sides of the coin every day with her small home-made sustainable business, Amapoli, where she makes hand-made sustainable menstrual pads for her community.
So this is the problem, right? I never really thought about it before Vale talked me into it. How much waste do we, menstruating people, throw out during our cycles? It is estimated that a menstruating person uses up between 10,000 to 13,000 disposable pads throughout their fertile lifespan. Each one will take up between 500 and 800 years to degrade.
Even more, do I even know how many menstruating people are out there? How can our brains possibly calculate this level of environmental harm?
“Sometimes, you are too busy about other things to worry or take action about these greater problems. Sometimes, not even visualize them,” Vale laughs. “After the pandemic hit, I was inexperienced and unemployed, doors were shut everywhere and surviving was harder than ever. I needed to resolve to creativity. But still I knew that, whatever I decided to do for a living now, it had to be something that harmed the environment as little as possible. If possible, do it some good.”
I see that you are really interested in sustainable education, but why did you choose this? Why menstrual pads, of all sustainable items?
I have been using a menstrual cup for a long time no. I would have turned to reusable pads, but my problem with them, was that they were too expensive for me. It seems to me, that the “sustainable menstruation” business in Chile is clearly targeting higher socioeconomic sectors, more affluent people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean reusable pads are impossible to buy. But even though they are a necessity, sustainable menstruating still feels like a luxury.
I would understand that, for most people, it is much easier to just buy your good ol’ plastic pads at the supermarket.
Therefore, even if the people who want to stop producing waste while menstruating, they still face this economic barrier that sometimes comes unsolvable. Especially during this pandemic. Maybe it is just my opinion, but I am not an economically stable person. I know, sometimes, every little pesito counts. My most expensive products are less than 4 dollars. If you buy a pack to use, even less.
To summarize, my motivation is to create sustainable options that are easily affordable for people like me. This way, I hope to make it easier for people to make a change, for themselves and for the environment.
Vale lives with her mom, dad, and cat
Clients leave their orders in her social media inbox every day. So she wakes up early in the morning and writes the orders for the day: Pads, packs, express deliveries…
When her schedule is ready, it’s time to sit down in front of the sewing machine and start working. Vale works in her own dining room, and gets her fabrics from other small local second-hand businesses. “We use 100% cotton fabrics, some new, some second-hand,” Vale says. “We favor the reuse of fabrics, because the fashion and clothing industry is also one of the most contaminants in the planet. I don’t want to contribute to that. I wish I could have a 100% second-hand fabric use, but people keep asking me to buy new ones too. They think reused fabrics might be inconvenient for intimate use…”
Is that true, though?
“Not really. It’s all in how you treat them. The ones we use, come from other used pieces of clothing, which we select very carefully. To be repurposed for our menstrual pads, they must be in good condition (no stains, no ripping parts), and have a tag that indicates composition, density and treatment. After that, we run discoloration and wearing-out tests at home, and very carefully sanitize them. If done with care, these fabrics are just as good.”
You keep saying “we”… Are there more people behind this project with you?
Vale smiles. “My mom was with me from the beginning of it all. I am blessed to have a mother who happens to be an expert seamstress. She was my one partner through it all: long weeks of designing, sewing, trying and messing up in the kitchen table… Looking back, I could not be happier to have her by my side.
SEWING IS IN YOUR BLOOD
Vale’s mom, Marlena, was the first to hear about the project and has been Vale’s one partner through the entire project.
“In the beginning, I had no idea how to use the sewing machine or how much work there was in being a seamstress; she was, and will always be, a very important part of what we have created. She taught me everything I know now. Our project, Amapoli, is named after her favorite flowers, amapolas (“poppies” in Spanish).
I have to admit, at the beginning of it all, my mom had to do almost everything herself, because I would mess up. As I learned from her, she eventually let me work on my own. She was very strict. But that’s why I trust her standards so much.
I learned fast. My mom says it’s because sewing is in our blood: most women in our family were seamstresses in the past. In a way, Amapoli has helped me connect to my family’s roots, and inherit this knowledge from the women of my past.”
Today, Amapoli has nearly 2K followers in social media, and clients all over Chile, north to south. Twice a week, Vale walks up to the post office to send every package, sometimes tens at a time. Between answering messages, updating social media and delivering the packages herself, Amapoli work takes up the entire day. Her customers text her daily to thank her work, and celebrating the good quality of her sustainable menstrual pads, that allow them and many others to avoid the production of tons of waste, that can make up tons in the span of a year.
“This lights my heart up,” Vale says about the messages and pictures. “Even now, when I am sending a package off, I am constantly thinking, ‘oh, no, what if they don’t like it? What if I made these wrong, what if I messed up?’ I am terrified of not meeting people’s expectations. Nevertheless, people seem to like what I do. They use my products. They stop wasting. It feels like I do help, in my own tiny way.”
How are you doing about this pandemic? Do you feel safer, calmer, now that you are working on this?
I don’t know how I am doing. I am just, doing. The uncertainty of this pandemic is the most nerve-wrecking thing. I have managed to continue to this day, but the pandemic just goes and goes on, and you never know what is going to happen. I never know if we will make it by the end of the month. I would feel terrible if I had to pause all of this; but I am ready to understand if I have to. I am not a very optimistic person. The thought of the future never does me right. But still, it gives me peace to be able to be at home; to see my family healthy, to have my girlfriend by my side. The most important thing for me, is to have these motivations that keep me distracted from the future. My present and all I have done, is all I really need. That’s all I should be thankful for.
That sounds rough… Still, I bet no one is a stranger to what you feel. Hope is not always just sitting there for the naked eye. Do you have any advice for people struggling, or fighting to make their projects work for a better future out there?
My advice for people is, just do stuff to help. In the tiniest ways, just do it. It feels like we are living the end of the world to me, and if there is an opportunity to be better, to help, to follow a passion, it might be now. The worst case scenario is that it doesn’t work. But just as you had your opportunities in the past, I trust you will have them new tomorrow. Don’t give up, don’t fear the future too much. No one is stranger to failure or pain, but at least make it worth it, knowing you at least tried to help.