Sustainability has never felt more important than at the current moment. As a society, we are surrounded by news of the growing climate emergency and plastic pollution. More people than ever are vocal about the necessity for more individual and collective effort at reducing waste, for a balance with the environment we inhabit.
Most people I know, myself included, make efforts towards reducing their waste: from bamboo toothbrushes to switching to non-dairy milk, everyday individuals are making better choices for the environment and for themselves.
As we move towards more conscientious choices, can something as normal and natural as periods be considered unsustainable?
Periods are somewhat still a taboo topic, especially how we deal with them. It may come as a surprise therefore that the common products we associate with periods, e.g. tampons and sanitary towels, are made of 90% plastic, according to Friends of the Earth UK.
Like other single-use plastic, sanitary products are thrown away (or worse, flushed away) after use and often end up in landfill or in the sea, never breaking down.
Plastic pollution is a problem: its estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, and it can take 20-1000 years for something like a plastic bag to break into smaller pieces. In terms of menstrual waste, an average person will throw away up to 200kg of menstrual products in their lifetime. That’s a lot of waste.
They are reusable so have less impact on the environment, and are made of medical grade silicone, which is claimed to be better for the body
Could menstrual cups be the answer? Menstrual cups, if you are not familiar with them, are generally shaped like a bell and insertable in the vagina, collecting blood rather than absorbing it. They are reusable so have less impact on the environment, and are made of medical grade silicone, which is claimed to be better for the body.
Considering that a staggering 1.5-2 billion menstrual items are flushed down Britain’s toilets each year, the rise in the use of menstrual cups would surely decrease this. Especially as menstrual cup brands normally make efforts to make their packaging recyclable, such as the OrganiCup.
The £20 spent at the start has saved me money on purchasing packets of tampons and sanitary pads in the long run
The main disadvantage of menstrual cups is, they generally cost around £20 up-front. However, they tend to last for years, which works out less expensive than buying tampons and pads every month overall. As a menstrual cup user, I can attest to the fact that ultimately, the £20 spent at the start has saved me money on purchasing packets of tampons and sanitary pads in the long run, even if it is a little bit frustrating at first.
A possible disadvantage of menstrual cups that are made of medical grade silicone, is that only specific recycling plants recycle it. However, unlike plastic, it is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms if it finds its way into the environment.
Hands in the air if you aren't going to hide your period care anymore ????
75% of people we asked have hid their tampon before. Not hiding your tampons can help end the stigma surrounding menstruation. The more we see period products, the more normal they become ? #PeriodPowerful pic.twitter.com/PEwo69iTUC
— TOTM (@totmorganic) February 27, 2020
Menstrual cups are not the only sustainable period products on offer, though, with the company TOTM making biodegradable, zero waste tampons, liners, pads and more.
Can we really call a natural process unsustainable?
Whilst menstrual cups and other sustainable period products have some obvious advantages, asking ‘are periods unsustainable?’ is ethically debatable, because can we really call a natural process unsustainable? And is everyone lucky enough to be able to choose to live sustainably?
In an ideal world, we would all live sustainably. However, period products that are better for the environment are not always accessible, especially to those who need it most.
Without the added layer of buying sustainably, normal period products are still expensive for the ordinary person and are taxed 5%, viewed as luxury products, when they are vital. In terms of accessibility, this means many people cannot afford sanitary products. Period Poverty UK note how more than 12 million refugees in the world have little to no sanitary protection, and there are plenty of homeless or low-income people who rely on donations as they can barely afford to feed themselves.
Can we really demand sustainability from these people? Also, does this move the conversation away from industries making more sustainable period products more accessible in the first place?
It is important to acknowledge that other consumer items are more unsustainable, for example, the clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world (second to oil), and an Oxford University study showed that avoiding meat and dairy is the biggest way an individual can reduce their impact on the Earth. It was also noted in a Greenpeace report that agriculture, if left unchecked, could produce 52% of global gas emissions in the following decades.
Would it not, therefore, be more impactful in terms of sustainability, for individuals to shop in a smart way, perhaps buying more second-hand clothes, or buying more vegan options whenever they can?
Not everyone can live a sustainable life.
It is unhelpful to claim that periods are unsustainable, because not only is it a natural process, there are other unsustainable choices being made that ultimately harm our environment more. Businesses who make single-use plastics need to be held more accountable for their part in the pollution crisis, because not everyone can live a sustainable life.
However, it is important to have an open and honest discussion about our own personal choices. If we can improve our lives by living sustainably, why wouldn’t we? If you feel as though you wish to switch to a menstrual cup, or another alternative, then I encourage you. Individual action will always be meaningful, so if you can do it, you probably should.
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