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A Bloody Huge Problem: The Environmental Impact of Period Products

19 October 2021
Plastic Periods: Menstrual Products and Plastic Pollution. Image from Friends of the Earth: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sustainable-living/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution (Accessed: 15th April 2021)
Plastic Periods: Menstrual Products and Plastic Pollution. Image from Friends of the Earth: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sustainable-living/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution (Accessed: 15th April 2021)

What Is The Issue?

On average, a single menstruator, with access to period products, will use between 5-15 thousand pads and or tampons during their 40 years of menstruation.[1][2] This roughly translates to a whopping 10,000kg of garbage and 212kg of carbon dioxide equivalent.[3][4] In the United States it has been estimated that each year, 7 billion tampons and 12 billion sanitary pads are thrown away ending up in landfill or in seas, rivers and beaches.[5] Once in landfill, a single sanitary product takes between 500 to 800 years to decompose.[6] That means, if Joan of Arc used plastic period products, they’d still be decomposing in landfill today.

 

Why Should We Care?

Plastic is destroying our oceans. The Marine Conservation society estimated that between 1.5 billion to 2 billion sanitary items are flushed down Britain’s toilets every year.[7] It takes centuries for these plastic products to break down into microplastics that are around 5 millimetres small. These microplastics are often found inside the fish that we consume.[8] Fish and chips are not sounding so appetising anymore are they?! Also, the processing of low-density polyethylene, which is a thermoplastic used in tampons and sanitary pads, uses large amounts of energy generated by fossil fuels.[9] Fossil fuels release carbon dioxide (otherwise known as a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere which causes global warming.[10]

 

What Are Businesses Doing?

Business and state actors are the most important forces in the period plastic crisis, due to their influence over the creation and environmental impact of this product. However, businesses have been particularly slow to change towards reusable materials because of the considerable profit they make from women being effectively locked into a monthly purchase of their products.[11] In an average 40 years of menstruation, women reportedly spend up to £5,000 on period products,  which translates to roughly £130 each year.[12][13] In 2018, Tampax (a plastic tampon company) sold 4.5bn boxes of Tampax worldwide.[14] Therefore, with corporations making money from single use period products there is very little incentive to change.

Businesses also perpetuate the social stigma surrounding periods, which makes raising awareness of period plastic waste extremely difficult. Jane Ussher, professor of Women’s Health Psychology, explains “Periods [have long] been associated with dirt, and disgust, and shame.”[15] Businesses use this social stigma to further their own interests by advertising their products as discreet and more hygienic as they can be thrown away after one use. This slows the progress of women talking about and trying reusable sanitary products, fearing that they are ‘unhygienic’compared to single-use products.[16]

 

State Actors

Governments need to create policy that places tighter restrictions on companies using single use plastics in sanitary products, forcing them to use biodegradable and all-natural fibres instead.  Currently ‘there is no legal requirement for manufacturers to list what ingredients are in sanitary products,’ this should be mandatory.[17] Plastic taxes need to be introduced alongside extended producer responsibilities (EPRs). EPRS’s are the policy approach that ensures corporations take responsibility for the waste and disposal of their product post-consumer stage.[18]

 

What Can You Do?

It is businesses and state actors that need to change to reverse the plastic period crisis, but they are unlikely to do this without social and political pressure. Before you feel too helpless, there are ways that you can act. On a personal level, use reusable sanitary products such as period cups,[19] washable pads, period pants and reusable tampon applicators. If reusable products are not the one for you, don’t worry! You can still have plastic free periods, many companies, such as Sainsburys and Superdrug are now making organic, zero-plastic disposable tampons and pads.[20] The more you buy these products, the more companies will need to supply.

Period or no period, you can still help by applying political pressure. You can start or join a petition,[21] write to your local MP, use social media to raise awareness or read articlesand watch documentaries to further educate yourself on the issue.[22][23]  Even starting a conversation can help break the taboo of discussing period products and raise social awareness of their environmental impact.

 

References

[1] Picture is from: Friends of the Earth, 2018, Plastic Periods: Menstrual Products and Plastic Pollution [online], Available at: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sustainable-living/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution [Accessed: 15th April 2021]

2 Sambyal. S, Henam. S, Tariang. F, 2019, Is Green Menstruation possible? [online], Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/waste/is-green-menstruation-possible–64796, [accessed: 15th April 2021]

[3] McIntyre, Karen, 2019, Feminine Hygiene Manufacturers Shift Focus [online], Available at: https://www.nonwovens-industry.com/issues/2019-11/view_features/feminine-hygiene-manufacturers-shift-focus/, [accessed: 17th April 2021

4 The same reference as footnote 1

[5] Anonymous, 2017, Planet-Friendly Periods [online], Available at: https://stanfordmag.org/contents/planet-friendly-periods, [Accessed 17th April 2021]

[6] The same reference as footnote 2

[7] O’Neill, Erin, 2019, Campaigning for Plastic-Free Periods [online], available at: https://www.mcsuk.org/news/period-plastic, [accessed 17th April 2021]

[8] The same reference as footnote 2

[9] Shreya, A, 2016, The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products [online], Available at: https://digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/the-ecological-impact-of-feminine-hygiene-products/, [Accessed: 17th April 2021]

[10] Client Earth, 2020, Fossil Fuels and Climate Change: the facts [online], Available at: https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/fossil-fuels-and-climate-change-the-facts/, [Accessed: 19th August 2021]

[11] Elmhirst, Sophie, 2020, Tampon Wars: the battle to overthrow the Tampax empire [online], Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/11/tampon-wars-the-battle-to-overthrow-the-tampax-empire, [Accessed 19th April 2021]

[12] Hampson, Laura, 2019, Women Spend £5,000 on Period Products in their Lifetime [online], Available at https://www.standard.co.uk/escapist/health/how-much-do-women-spend-on-period-products-a4299531.html, [Accessed 17th April 2021]

[13] Murray, Jessica, 2021, How to get free and cheap sanitary products [online], Available at: https://www.savethestudent.org/save-money/health/save-money-on-sanitary-products.html#:~:text=It’s%20been%20estimated%20that%20the,or%20%C2%A310%20a%20period, [accessed 18th April 2021]

[14] The same reference as footnote 12

[15] Willis, Olivia, 2017, Breaking the Menstrual Taboo: why period stigma still holds women back [online], Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-09-30/menstrual-cycle-taboo-holds-women-back/8996526, [Accessed: 17th April 2021]

[16] Hayden, Jane, 2019, A LOT of Women Still Feel ‘Embarrassed’ on their Periods [online], Available at: https://www.her.ie/health/lot-women-feel-embarrassed-periods-study-shows-382871, [Accessed: 15th April 2020

[17] Tanner, Claudia, 2020, ‘Women are still not aware there is plastic inside tampons and pads’: The entrepreneur on a mission to make periods plastic-free [online] available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/plastic-tampons-pads-environment-waste-eco-friendly-404564, [accessed: 18th April 2021]

[18] European Commission, 2014, Development of Guidance on Extended Producer Responsibility [EPRs] [online], available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/waste/eu_guidance/introduction.html, [accessed: 18th April 2021]

[19] Healthline, 2017, Everything You Need to Know about Using Menstrual Cups [online], Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/menstrual-cup, [Accessed 19th April 2021]

[20] Edie Newsroom, 2020, Superdrug Ditches Plastic from Own Brand Tampons [online], Available at: https://www.edie.net/news/5/Superdrug-ditches-plastic-from-own-brand-tampons/, [Accessed: 19th April 2021]

[21] Daish, Ella, 2021, Make all Menstrual Products Plastic Free [online], Available at: https://www.change.org/p/make-all-menstrual-products-plastic-free, [Accessed: 19th April 2021]

[22] Borunda, Alejandra, 2019, How Tampons and Pads Became so Unsustainable, Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic, [Accessed 19th April]

Rajanbir. K, Kanwalijit. K, Rajinder. K, 2018, Menstrual Hygiene, Management, and Waste Disposal: Practices and Challenges Faced by Girls/Women of Developing Countries [online], Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5838436/, [Accessed 19th April 2021]

Elmhirst, Sophie, 2020, Tampon Wars: the battle to overthrow the Tampax empire [online], Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/11/tampon-wars-the-battle-to-overthrow-the-tampax-empire, [Accessed 19th April 2021]

[23] The Planet Shine, 2019, The Making of an Activist [online], Available at: https://planetshine.com/the-making-of-an-activist/, [Accessed 19th April 2021]

Watch the 2019 documentary titles: Period. End of Sentence, which tackles the issue of menstrual waste in India or read about it in the following article. Down to Earth, 2019, Managing Menstrual Waste in India [online], Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/infographics/managing-menstrual-waste-in-india-63356, [Accessed: 19th April 2021]