Women are breaking the old ‘taboo’ to talk about period waste and campaign for sustainable feminine hygiene options, writes Ellie O'Byrne.
You use them for between four and eight hours, but after you throw them away, they’re going to stay in the environment for 500 years. Is it time to start shouting about period plastic?
A heightened awareness of the issue of single-use plastics in general has led to conversation opening up in an area that was once hush-hush: Periods. Half the human race has them, and it’s estimated that a woman has up to 450 periods in her lifetime. So how we handle the waste from a visit from Aunty Flo is a global environmental issue.
The products of brand leaders like Tampax, Always, and Lil-lets, who corner an enormous share of the market, as well as supermarket own-brand pads and tampons, are made from up to 90% plastics, containing the equivalent of three plastic bags each, and are non-recyclable: They are destined for landfill, incinerators, or, when flushed, the sea.
Some women even flush plastic disposable applicators; an EU report has found period products are the fifth most common type of waste found on beaches.
In Ireland, at a conservative estimate, 260m single-use period products are used annually. That’s over 700,000 period products dumped each day. Yet most big supermarkets don’t stock a single biodegradable or reusable period product.
Can we look to our sisters across the water to take a page out of the UK’s book? Campaigner Ella Daish, from Cardiff, has declared war on period plastics in 2019 and says she’ll keep campaigning until period plastic is a thing of the past.
She has gathered over 191,000 signatures to a petition to ban period plastic from products entirely, and last year she successfully campaigned for UK branches of Tesco and Sainsbury’s to stock eco-friendly period products including biodegradable, plastic-free pads, and tampons, as well as menstrual cups.
Now, Ella is arguing for an all-out ban on period plastics, starting with the plastic applicators used by big brands for their tampons.
“I just don’t understand the necessity for plastic applicators at all,” she says. “They get everywhere. I get pictures sent to me on social media of people finding them on beach cleans. They could very easily be replaced with cardboard: Up until the ’70s, they were all cardboard anyway.”
Procter and Gamble, the parent company of feminine hygiene market leaders Tampax and Always, met with Ella and said her concerns would be “taken forward and passed on to more senior managers and the product development and research teams”, while Lil-lets responded to her concerns by pointing out that applicators are optional.
Between 1.5bn and 2bn period products are flushed down UK toilets each year. But while companies focus on educating women not to flush, Ella says the waste all still goes somewhere and that the companies who are producing it will have to change their ways too.
“I think that plastic free periods are going to become more and more mainstream.”
Ella had started cutting back on all single-use plastics when she started thinking about her period waste. “I started my period and after a few days I was really aware of how much plastic waste I was producing and I just thought, ‘why have I never even thought about this before?’”
Ella believes the answer lies in the slow-to-die menstrual taboo that still impacts our discussions on all aspects of periods. “A lot of us are growing up thinking not only that we shouldn’t talk about it but also that it’s disgusting,” she says.
“So when we think of period products, I think a lot of people flushing them just want to get rid of them as soon as possible.
“Education-wise, we were never told the environmental consequences of flushing. We only think about brands we’re shown, and the focus with those brands is on things like discreet packaging and ‘the wrapping won’t make a noise when you open it in a cubicle’. It’s very hush-hush: The taboo feeds our inability to think about the waste.”
Period poverty is a problem that impacts on women and girls in poverty not only in developing countries, where access to hygiene equipment has a dramatic impact on girls’ lives, right down to whether they complete their education, but for all women suffering the impacts of poverty and homelessness. Ella has been involved in campaigns to make sure period charities are including eco-options in care packages.
In fact, switching to reusables could make a huge dent in the so-called “tampon tax” — the estimated €4,200 a woman can expect to spend on periods over the course of her life. According to a study by Plan International last year, in Ireland, we spend €132.34 per year on period products.
Seamstress and zero-waste campaigner Joanna O’Dowd lives in Cork and makes Joanna’s Happy Cloth Pads, a colourful range of patterned reusable sanitary pads that she sells on Etsy and at craft stalls at farmer’s markets.
She started making pads for friends two years ago and decided to give them a go herself. Fervent about issues of sustainability, she had started looking for reusable options and had one unsuccessful run-in with a menstrual cup before deciding to craft her own pads:
Breaching the taboo has become an important part of Joanna’s work, she says: One particular product which stirred a little controversy is her so-called Bloody Mary pads, sewn from fabric made with a pattern of the Virgin Mary on them.
“Yes, some people don’t appreciate it, they think it’s wrong. But I think that’s part of the attitude towards periods in general, that they’re something dirty and disgusting. I actually think they’re something amazing. Without menstruation, none of us would be here.”
Joanna’s pads are a slimline, modern design: Fixed in place with pop-studs and with a core of a special, super-absorbent cloth designed for cloth nappies, some are fleece-backed for added protection. She produces a range of sizes and says some women have even used her largest design post-partum without problems. Pads can be included with any regular 30-degree wash cycle.
If Google’s figures are anything to go by, it seems like the red revolution may already have begun: Between 2013 and 2018, searches for “menstrual cup” leapt from an interest ranking of 21/100 to 83/100.
The mother of two little girls, Joanna believes education and the shedding of the period taboo will help future generations make more sustainable choices. “The girls see me making them, washing them, and drying them, and they look fun to them,” she says. “Since I started making and using them, periods have become something positive because they look fun and colourful.”