Written by Eve Sanders
By now we’ve all heard about the global plastics problem. What was an obscure invention in the early 1900s became the world’s wonder material of the 1950s, and nowadays it is the scourge of the planet.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to underplay just how much we’ve come to depend on plastics. From the 1950s, when global demand was just 1.5 million tonnes a year, it has risen exponentially to an annual 322 million tons a year. That’s an awful lot of plastic!
Sadly too, essential menstrual products contribute heavily to this vast number. Each year in the UK, over 200,000 tonnes of waste is generated by the use of pads, tampons and their applicators (approximately 590,000 tonnes of menstrual product waste across the whole of the EU), and disposal of these products is a major issue.
While menstruation is a natural and healthy part of life, most people’s associations of periods with negativity, pain and the blood ‘taboo’ mean that manufacturers continue to try and hide period effects, thereby perpetuating taboos and misconceptions. Many mainstream period products, such as tampons and pads, are designed and marketed to scare people into thinking that periods are smelly, dirty and something to be hidden at all costs.
What’s worse is that prolonging this shaming and embarrassment that goes along with periods is not only bad for mental health but also for body health and the natural environment. Some menstrual products not only cause ill effects on the human body, they also end up scarring the environment by ending up in the ocean, on beaches and in landfill, where they continue to pollute for decades.
At the moment, plastic is the main ingredient in most mainstream menstrual products, from the wrappings to the applicators and pads themselves. A single menstrual pad is 90% plastic and there are 5 plastic bags worth of plastic in a single standard pack of disposable pads. A tampon is at least 6% plastic, with the plastic applicator being made from Polyethylene (PE) and Polypropylene (PP), the two main plastics found in the ocean. Even a tampon string can be made from PE or PP. The statistics are mind-blowing, yet this is a very under-exposed area of research into the pollution problem.
The biggest problem with producing and using all this plastic is that it is here to stay. A majority of these period products break down into microplastics (pieces smaller than 5mm, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA), eventually ending up on our foreshores (including the Thames) and in the ocean.
TEP has already attempted to address this problem with one awareness campaign. Your Tidal Thames Catchment Partnership, which TEP co-hosts alongside Thames21, ran a campaign from 2015 to 2016 called The Unflushables, which aimed to raise awareness about how to dispose of bathroom waste correctly and to educate people on the dangers of flushing single-use items down the loo.
So what else and what more can we do about it? Each of us can start by switching to reusable and ethical products, such as washable reusable pads and reusable tampon applicators and products made from organic materials. By making these kinds of changes, every individual using such products can immediately reduce waste and make a difference, as well as incentivising manufacturers in the long term to make changes in production for more environmentally conscious demand. A report produced by Zero Waste Europe 2019, estimates that the use of a menstrual cup results in a reduction of 99% of the waste that would be generated using singe use products. If only 20% of people who menstruate opted for the menstrual cup (instead of single-use menstrual items), the amount of waste could be reduced by roughly 100,000 tonnes every year in Europe. That’s a great start to a virtuous cycle!
Not only is making this shift from single-use to reusable much better for the planet, it can also contribute towards decreasing period poverty. One in five females who menstruate struggle to pay for basic single-use period products monthly in the EU. This can significantly impact quality of life and has been linked to school absences. Making reusable menstrual products more mainstream and widely accessible across the EU could help economic savings and reduce poverty.
Finding the right reusable menstrual product can be tricky. Chatting to friends and colleagues and doing some research can help. In recent years, more environmentally friendly and reusable products have become available throughout high street stores and supermarkets, making it easier to explore options. You can find more information on products and some money off codes for environmentally friendly period products here.
The Women’s Environmental Network (Wen.) run a campaign called Environmenstrual which ‘raises awareness of hidden plastic and chemicals in conventional menstrual products and promotes reusable and organic options.’ Wen. supply a fantastic array of Environmenstrual resources on their website and you can click here to find out more.
Many brilliant charities and organisations such as Wen. and City to Sea are already lobbying for a social and cultural shift in attitudes towards periods and menstruation. This subsequently may affect the choices we make about menstruation products and how we dispose of them. In time, this could have a major positive impact on both our own health and the health of the environment.
‘The Environmental and economic costs of single-use menstrual products, baby nappies & wet wipes: Investigating the impact of these single-use items across Europe’, Zero Waste Europe, 2019
‘Seeing Red: Menstruation and the environment’, Women’s Environmental Network, 2018