Stories
Oct 30, 2020

Period poverty and sustainability

Disposing of shame and encouraging hygiene around the world | by Lauren Crosby Medlicott
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Many women don’t think twice about running to the shop to buy sanitary products, but millions have to.

Period poverty—being unable access to safe, hygienic sanitary products, or an inability to manage periods with dignity—affects 1 in 4 women in the UK and 300 million worldwide. Women miss work. Girls miss school. Infections fester. And shame radiates. All because of the inability to stay clean.

Donating the disposable

When charities attempt to tackle period poverty, they often collect donations and fund the purchase of disposable sanitary products. Products that then have a negative impact on our environment. Ruby Raut, of WUKA period underwear, told SAN that 4.6 million tampons and pads get flushed down the toilet every day in the UK. If they aren’t fished out of the sewage, they end up filling oceans. The rest, some 200,000 tonnes of sanitary products, are added to landfills each year.

Adding to this problem, most disposable sanitary products contain a wide array of plastics—meaning that they aren't going to degrade anytime soon. Tampons are often wrapped in plastic and use a plastic applicator. Even the cotton, often has layer of plastic in it. Sanitary pads are also wrapped in plastic, have plastic linings to stick to underwear, and there's a small amount of rayon (plastic) in the absorbent cotton too.

If women can source fabric and a needle and thread, they can create their own products to stay clean, giving them power, hygiene and pride—without any negative impact on the environment.

Disposable sanitary products are contaminating the planet, but they also fail to help women in the long run. A pack of disposable pads and tampons might deal with one or two periods, but what happens when they run out? No one should be dependent on the charity of others each and every time they menstruate. Cheri Hoeger of Saalt, a company that creates menstrual cups, explained, "although disposable pads represent progress toward safer alternatives, they are still beyond the monthly affordability of women below the poverty line, and developing nations often lack the infrastructure to address the waste that disposable sanitary products create." However, if women were taught to make their own reusable sanitary pads or was donated with period pants or a menstrual cup, they would then have protection for life.

Sustainable hygiene

Is there a way to solve the problem of period poverty, while still protecting the planet? Supriya Garikipait, Development Economist, thinks so. "By now, there are a number of innovative sustainable feminine hygiene products in the market but none as are well-known as disposable pads, that had the backing of large commercial marketing campaigns." Sanitary pads are the most used reusable sanitary product in the UK, but also globally. Action Aid is working with partners in developing countries, such as Nepal and Malawi, to train women and girls to make safe, reusable sanitary pads. If women can source fabric and a needle and thread, they can create their own products to stay clean, giving them power, hygiene and pride—without any negative impact on the environment.

In the UK, reusable sanitary products have become fairly common amongst those that can afford them. But what about those that can’t afford the slightly more expensive, sustainable option?

Without soap, drying lines, and toilets, the issue of period poverty cannot be tackled in a sustainable way.

Before moving to the UK, WUKA's Raut lived in Nepal and faced period shaming due to a lack of effective period products. She has made it her goal to create a period underwear made from washable material. Sadly, as a product, these are much too expensive for many around the world. "Last September, the Government announced that all girls in school would have access to sanitary products. They donated 21 million pounds over the course of three years." She continued, "but they are handing out products that are bad for the environment." Initially, disposable products are cheaper to purchase and distribute at lower prices. But in the long run, it would be better value for the Government to purchase and distribute reusable products.

Further complications

Indeed, in developing countries, it would be counter-productive to give women and girls reusable products without addressing the issue of changing and cleaning them. Women need a place to change their sanitary products and clean themselves. Without soap, drying lines, and toilets, the issue of period poverty cannot be tackled in a sustainable way.

Hoeger explained that menstrual cups are more effective abroad for this reason. "The cup can be worn for up to 12 hours, girls can last the school day without having to empty it, and the cup requires minimal water for cleaning. All they need is a bottle of clean water to rinse their cup when it’s time to empty." However, in many parts of the world, patriarchal cultures dissuade women from having anything in the vagina, except for male genitalia. On top of this, menstrual cups are complicated to manufacture, taking away the possibility of women and girls being able to make their own.

Nonetheless, the hope is that sustainable products become more common and cheaper to manufacture, eventually allowing a significant number of the world's girls and women to live cleanly and without shame.


Article written by Lauren Crosby Medlicott (@laurenmedlicott)

Photo by Josefin on Unsplash