Awareness, understanding, knowledge and open frank discussion can all be catalysts for amazingly positive change. One of my personal passions is to speak about a source of pollution that we don’t often talk or think much about. An environmental/ ecological issue that is escalating all over the globe and will continue to do so unless we care enough and do something proactive about it. The issue is menstrual waste, namely the disposal of non-biodegradable sanitary towels and tampons.
Do you ever think about the pollution associated with disposable menstrual products? What happens to the used pad or tampon? Up until a few years ago I didn’t. In places around the world that have under-developed waste management systems you just see used pads lying on the road, like the photo above taken in the Himalayas of India. And sadly this will only get worse the more women who are ‘converted’ to plastic disposables by government incentives sponsored by giant pad making companies.
Closer to home, I always recycled glass, plastic and paper, but somehow I didn’t relate to menstrual disposables in the same way. I felt dis-empowered; I realised these products and their wrappers were made of plastic but there was nothing I could do with them. I didn’t know the alternatives, so I carried on throwing them away.
I’m sure we have all felt like this at some point. We know that media and big brand ad campaigns like the current ‘Help keep your period out of sight’ slogan directly influence our society and our thoughts. But what kind of message are these companies sending out? And why? Despite being such a normal healthy and natural process, menstruation is a taboo subject. Fortunately though, more and more people are becoming to understand that menstruation is an inbuilt natural time for reflection and renewal. It’s often HONOURED by ceremonies and celebrations in other cultures.
There are nearly nearly 3.6 billion women in the world, so the scale of this environmental problem is huge. If every woman in India alone had access to disposables they would collectively need 58,500 million pads per year. Staggering beyond comprehension considering how much plastic is used in just one. An average US woman throws away 16800 disposable pads and tampons in her life-time. In the UK 200,000 tons of menstrual waste is generated annually which is either incinerated, buried in a landfill site or flushed into the sewerage system. The average disposable pad contains 5 carrier bags worth of plastic, a myriad of chemicals, and takes 500-800 years to decompose in a landfill, and never truly breaks down in the sea.
Tampons, applicators and panty liner waste makes up 7.3% of items flushed down the toilet and in 2010 the Beachwatch survey weekend found an average of 22.5 towels/backing strips/pantyliners and 8.9 tampon applicators per kilometer of beach. More than half of sewer flooding can be attributed to such waste that is flushed away, even if it is described as biodegradable on the packaging. Incinerated waste causes toxins to be released into the air, and buried waste poisons the ground and can be dug up by animals risking the spread of disease.
And then there’s the impact of these products on our health too. Disposable pads are said to contain a combination of plastic based materials such as polythene, polypropylene and polyacrylate super absorbent gel, surfactants, and chlorine-bleached wood pulp as well as the occasional fragrance preserved with parabens. Tampons are commonly made from chlorine bleached, highly absorbent rayon or a combination of conventionally grown cotton and rayon. The chlorine bleaching process produces an unwanted by-product called dioxin – a substance linked to cancer, endometriosis, low sperm counts and immune system suppression.
So what are the alternatives to disposables? Many companies are out there selling ‘washable cloth pads’ and ‘menstrual cups’. Just search on Google and you will be able to choose from a wide range of wonderful good quality products. I had the privilege to volunteer for an organization called ‘Eco Femme’ www.ecofemme.org earlier this year, and was really impressed with the quality of their pad range and amount of charity work they do in India. There the problem of menstrual waste is escalating, the systems can’t cope, and socially the women are confronted with huge taboos around menstruation often leading to young girls missing school each month and women getting diseases due to lack of adequate sanitary protection. Eco Femme’s charity ‘pad for pad’ scheme means that every time they receive an international order for a pad, they ‘gift a pad’ to a disadvantaged girl in rural India with a 45 minute educational session, covering things like anatomy, taboos, and pad care instructions. Also the pads are all stitched by women from rural Indian villages who are part of the local ‘self-help’ action groups.
So what are cloth pads like? The soft cotton finish is comfortable and feels like underwear; they are as effective as disposables, often the same shape as disposables, easy to wash – after soaking for half an hour in water they can be put in the washing machine along with your clothes. They come in a range of sizes from the panty-liner (that can be worn with a menstrual cup) to a night pad size, and they are free from harmful chemicals.
It was during my time volunteering that I made the decision to speak out to other women for the environment. I consider myself very lucky to be in a position to talk about the alternatives to disposable products. I’m not judging women for their decisions, and I don’t want to push people far out of their comfort zone. My dream is to raise environmental awareness around this issue so that women and their daughters feel empowered to act and make changes – to understand that they have a choice and a say in improving their own health, and subsequently to make a better world.
For more on eco-activism and menstrual activism click here