Plastic free periods will not be universal without shame-free periods

14 October 2019

As Environmenstrual Week kicks off for 2019, Kate Chambers explores the issues around #plasticfreeperiods from consumer choice to flushing behaviours, marine litter and the rise of reusables.

In the UK, disposable period products are central to menstrual education, both at school and in the home, and for those of us experiencing menstruation, our reliance on single-use plastic products to ensure a comfortable, convenient and leak-free period has gone largely unquestioned.

For the majority, disposable products are perceived as an obvious partner to our periods. Single-use plastic (SUP) is so ubiquitous that many of us barely see it. It is accepted as part of everyday life. Until recently, few of us considered or were even aware of the role plastics play in our periods.

Plastic periods – a multi-million pound market

The period product market, which is dominated by disposable tampons and pads, is worth approximately £265.8m in the UK. The most popular tampon products are typically manufactured from materials such as cotton and viscose rayon, with super-absorbent fibres and plastics (hydrophobic polyester / polypropylene fibres) which add strength to the product.

Similarly, pads are made with rayon and absorbent wood cellulose, with added polymers such as polyolefins (polyethylene, polypropylene), polyester, and absorbent polyacrylate gel. Many brands also add fragrances, glues and gels. Disposable tampons and pads are mixed material products, designed to be disposed after one use: the very definition of single use.

For decades, menstrual activists have argued that mass-produced disposable products do not meet users needs and have raised both health and environmental concerns about the role plastic plays in their manufacture. However, as a result of the ‘Blue Planet effect’, this subject has received more attention than ever before. Ella Daish’s #endperiodplastic campaign, which demands that retailers and manufacturers remove plastic from period products, has received almost 200,000 signatures. The campaign has pressured retailers, like Sainsbury’s, to remove plastic tampon applicators from their own brand period products.

Ella Daish, the founder of #endperiodplastic campaign
Ella Daish, the founder of #endperiodplastic campaign

Despite the backlash, there is a valid argument that plastics are not an inherently problematic material, but they have become an environmental issue due to the way we use and dispose of them. This argument is particularly apt when thinking about the role of plastic in period products. For many, plastic-based menstrual products work. The most popular tampon brand in the UK is Tampax, and their ‘Pearl’ range includes a plastic applicator design to provide the user ‘smoothness, greater ease of insertion and maximum comfort’. Amidst growing calls for plastic bans, it is important to remember that there are complex social, cultural and personal reasons why many people choose plastic period products.

Flushing behaviour link to marine litter

Users who opt for conventional tampons or pads will get through approximately 11,000 products in a lifetime. Not only is our reliance on disposable period products generating a lot of waste, it turns out many of these products are being found in the marine environment. According to Marine Conservation Society, 12.6% of litter found on Scottish beaches during their Great British Beach Clean 2018 was sewage related debris (SRD), which includes tampons and pads. Most of these products end up in the marine environment after being flushed by users. It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 billion menstrual products are flushed down toilets every year in the UK.

Bins and stigma compound behavioural challenge

There are complex reasons why users flush their disposable products. For many, menstruation remains a taboo subject that is shrouded in mystery and misinformation. Even when menstruation is discussed, there is a focus on use rather than disposal. Figure 1. shows a screenshot from the website of a major tampon brand, where the customer support on how to dispose of a tampon is vague.

Flushing behaviour - period plastic
Figure 1. Tampon customer service website

This customer advice example shows how flushing is normalised. It is accepted as a common behaviour, even though most users know that it is not a legitimate disposal route for these products. Due to enduring stigma and embarrassment, some people admit that flushing is a discreet way of minimising contact with products that they find shameful, dirty or difficult to dispose of. Lack of sanitary bin provision in bathrooms, in the home, workplaces or public places, is also cited as one reason for flushing products. Some users find sanitary hygiene bins appear full or that they are put off by the appearance or smell of the bin and choose not to use it.

Flushing disposable products is yet another symptom of our detachment from the waste we produce. We want the convenience of the products, but after use… it’s out of sight, out of mind. The reality is that flushing disposable menstrual products passes the problem downstream. Taxpayers foot the bill for removing period products blocking our sewerage systems but many more make their way into our rivers and seas, causing environmental and economic problems to our coastline.

Rise of reusable menstrual products

In recent years, reusable menstrual products are becoming more mainstream, with smaller brands competing against global disposable tampon and pad brands. Major UK retailers are now stocking reusable products (commonly menstrual cups rather than reusable pads) but despite the growing interest in reusable products, there is not huge uptake in sales when compared with disposables. Figure 3 shows how the interest in reusable period products has grown in the past few years, as a result of increasing menstrual activism and media coverage.

Figure 2. Google Trends index of search terms

There remain barriers to engagement with reusable products. Discussion and education is still restricted by persistent stigma, with users experiencing a sense of social pressure to stick with disposable products as well as lacking access to reusables. Although reusable products are cheaper over their lifetime, the upfront cost is more expensive, and this can alienate potential users.

Infrastructure, education and co-design are all crucial

Moreover, reusables require safe, accessible and judgement-free spaces to clean and maintain the products. Menstruation is an essential part of human life, but it remains shrouded in taboo. Disposable products have done little to tackle damaging misconceptions and shame around periods, and what is more, they reinforce the idea that waste is as natural as menstruation itself.

Periods need not continue to generate cycles of waste and contribute to polluting our environment. Infrastructure, education and co-design are all crucial, but plastic-free periods will not be universal without shame-free periods.