The UK’s first washable ‘period underwear’ was launched by WUKA, a St Albans-based start-up, and recent industry figures reveal that demand for reusable menstrual cups is at an all-time high. Is the tide turning in the battle for greener periods?
When a young postwoman from Wales started a petition calling for manufacturers to stop using plastics in menstrual products, she could have hardly hoped for a better response. Ella Daish's petition was launched in February and gained more than 100,000 signatures in two months.
Reusable and biodegradable alternatives have been available for years, but Ella’s success demonstrates that increased awareness of single-use plastic has stimulated much greater public interest.
This year, the UK’s first washable ‘period underwear’ was launched by the St Albans-based start-up WUKA, and recent industry figures reveal that demand for reusable menstrual cups is at an all-time high. So, is the tide turning in the battle for greener periods?
While there are certainly promising signs, achieving a meaningful reduction in plastic menstrual products presents a formidable challenge. Menstrual product sales are worth about £270 million a year in Britain, with the industry dominated by some of the world’s most powerful consumer goods conglomerates.
The average menstruator in the UK will get through around 11,000 pads and tampons in their lifetime. It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of a menstrual pad is plastic.
The majority of the menstrual items we throw away will be incinerated or linger for centuries in landfill. Around 8.5 per cent of sewage debris - which includes menstrual products - will find its way onto Britain’s beaches. These materials can take centuries to break down, threatening the health of marine environments with microplastics.
Non-organic pads and tampons can also contain chemical absorbers, fillers, lubricants, and chemical and pesticide residues from the bleaching and manufacturing process.
These have the potential to impact our health - vaginal tissue is particularly absorbent - while the residues and leaching of materials and additives are environmental contaminants.
The Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) has been concerned about the impact of these products on the environment since 1989 when its founding group of feminist campaigners published 'The Sanitary Protection Scandal'.
This report was the first of its kind, and was highly critical of the disposable menstrual product and nappy industries for perpetrating unsafe and unsustainable manufacturing processes.
Three years of campaigning by WEN resulted in labelling about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) on tampon packaging, followed by a nationwide ‘Bag it and Bin it’ campaign, to stop menstrual waste from being flushed down the loo.
The campaign is important because awareness of alternatives remains weak. Smaller ethical companies have a fraction of the marketing budget of the consumer goods giants who dominate the industry, which makes it difficult for them to get the word out.
To make things worse, powerful brands like Always and Tampax, owned by Procter & Gamble, are allowed to market their products in schools under the guise of period education but neglect to let young people know about more sustainable options such as washable pads and menstrual cups.
The taboo around periods also means that even those who are aware of alternative products can be reticent about spreading the word, even among friends and family.
Firstly, major manufacturers need to remove plastics from menstrual products and packaging, and switch to organic and compostable versions to keep plastics and chemicals out of our environment.
We can’t expect everyone to make the move to reusables, and manufacturers have a moral duty to ensure that their products aren’t contaminating our planet for many hundreds of years.
We must also demand a full and balanced education on menstrual product options in schools so that young people can make an informed choice that’s based on their needs and those of the environment rather than what’s best for big business.
As part of the Environmenstrual campaign, we’re launching a pilot programme of workshops in schools and universities and we’re aiming to design a toolkit that can be used by teachers, students, and educators.
The fact that the cheapest options are those with the most potential to damage our health and the planet makes this a social and environmental justice issue: those with the least power have the greatest exposure to dangerous products.
According to a survey by Plan International UK, one in ten girls aged 14 to 21 can’t afford menstrual products. While reusable cups and pads will last for years and can offer long-term savings, they require an initial investment, which may put them out of reach of anyone on a low-income.
Our coalition partners, The Cup Effect and Bloody Good Period, have teamed up to run ‘CupAware’ parties - like Tuppaware parties! - to demystify menstrual cups and secure donations forasylum seekers and refugees.
We’ve also begun to explore the potential for a funded voucher scheme for reusables, which could operate in a similar way to the successful Real Nappies for London scheme which WEN set up in 2007. This sees local authorities subsidise washable nappies to the benefit of low income families.
Learning how to make washable cotton pads can also be a fun and low-cost way of securing reusable menstrual wear. Making subsidised reusables available on every university campus would be another great step forward in the campaign against period poverty.
With new innovations in the menstrual product market, it’s also important that we offer a critical eye to new products, to help secure the safest options.
The movement for sustainable menstrual products is underway, but we need your support. Our Environmenstrual crowdfunder closes on 30th June 2018 and we’d be delighted if you would support this important campaign by making a pledge.
- Support the Environmenstrual campaign crowdfunder
- Find out more about menstrual cups, period underwear, washable pads, reusable tampon applications, compostables, or have a go at making your own
- Join our coalition
- Take part in the Environmenstrual Week of Action, 13th-20th October 2018
- Sign Ella's plastics petition
- Take part in a beach or rivers clean up
- Check out this video on 'unflushables' by Bristol-based campaign group, City to Sea
- Support WEN: become a member and get in touch on Twitter and Instagram
Julia Minnear is a Co-Director at Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) - the only UK charity connecting women’s health, equality, and the environment. She also co-ordinates LEEF - London’s professional network for environmental & sustainability educators.