County Cork’s 274,193 women and girls, as per census 2016, will each menstruate for an average of 40 years, using somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000 menstrual products from puberty to menopause.
And this is almost all unrecyclable plastic waste destined for landfill, incineration or even into our marine environment as plastic pollution. It’s a ticking environmental time-bomb, but it’s also, curiously, rarely spoken of.
“Everyone talks about single use bottles and straws and the rest of it, but menstrual products are a massive source of plastic,” says Courtmacsherry woman Abi O’Callaghan-Platt.
“They’re the fifth most common item of marine plastic found on European coastlines, so they’re more common than single-use cups, cutlery or straws. Yet there’s no mention of it, and I do think that’s the squeamishness and taboos that people have around periods.”
Abi is the woman behind environmental NGO VOICE’s new campaign, which hopes to breach the period taboo and get women and girls talking about the issue of period plastics, and finding ways to opt for eco-friendly alternatives.
They’ll be used for a matter of hours, but once discarded, if they contain plastic, which most disposable period products now do, they will persist in the environment for 500 years.
“A normal menstrual pad is 90% plastic and a pack of pads has the equivalent of five plastic carrier bags in it,” Abi says.
“A lot of applicators are plastic now, where they used to be card. Pads are individually wrapped in plastic, and because people often flush them, they end up on the beach.
“You can’t recycle menstrual products so they are just being disposed of in landfill and incinerators. It’s a massive source of waste that to me is easily avoidable.”
Of course, right up until the 1920s, and the introduction of disposable menstrual pads and tampons, all the ways women and girls had dealt with periods throughout history had been reusable and eco-friendly by default. But modernising menstrual hygiene options had a massive liberating effect on women’s lives that we sometimes forget. In many developing countries, the onset of menstruation is still when girls are most likely to leave their education due to lack of adequate sanitation and menstrual hygiene options.
Abi believes that by getting people talking about the options that are out there, people will realise that modern eco-friendly alternatives are convenient, easy to use and can come with economic as well as environmental benefits.
She herself uses a menstrual cup, a flexible silicone cup which is inserted like a tampon and emptied and rinsed throughout the day.
“Menstrual cups have also been around since the 1920s, but a lot of people just don’t know about them,” she says.
“From the point of view of the producers, it’s more profitable to be able to sell you something every month than to be able to sell you something once that lasts a decade, so I think that’s why it hasn’t been marketed.”
Abi, who grew up in Clonakilty and studied in the UK, before returning to Ireland to live in Courtmacsherry, is launching a campaign with a three-pronged approach. The ‘No Plastic. Period’. campaign aims to raise awareness through workshops, to lobby supermarkets to begin stocking eco-friendly period products, and to get government support for reusables.
“I started working on the campaign idea after my son, who was in sixth class, came home from school with the booklet that every child in the country gets given when they do their sex and puberty talk,” she says. “I realised that there was no mention of reusables in the section on periods.”
This is an area where government can help as is the area of taxation: reusables are currently taxed at a higher rate than disposable options. Abi, who has an MA in Environmental Economics and Policy from London’s Imperial College, thinks the government should be rewarding and incentivising eco-friendly period practices instead of punishing them.
Retailers also have a large role to play in improving access to eco-friendly options, Abi believes. Regular convenient access to plastic-free products will give women a genuine choice.
“There are only certain people who will have the time to visit health-food shops specifically,” Abi says. “To make any sort of plastic-free shopping a viable option, it has to be available in supermarkets. And the majority of supermarkets don’t stock a single reusable or plastic-free period product.
“We plan to lobby supermarkets to make their own-brand products plastic-free, to go back to card applicators and reduce the amount of plastic, and to stock plastic-free and reusables where possible.”
Finally, VOICE are planning a series of workshops in schools. In a recent audit of home plastics called ‘No Home For Plastic’ co-ordinated by Abi, none of the teenage girls surveyed reported using reusable period products.
“It seems to me that when you’re young you set in place habits that you just carry on with into your adult life,” Abi says.
And the remains of our menstrual taboos can feed into a mindset where girls just want to “hide the evidence” of their period as quickly as possible, without ever really considering their options.
“People don’t like to deal with these things and would prefer to just get rid of them, so it does require a change of mindset,” she says “But people can’t make choices if they don’t have awareness of the different options available.”
VOICE Ireland launch their ‘No Plastic. Period.’ campaign to coincide with the EU-wide Environmenstrual Week of Action, October 19 to 25. They will host give-aways of reusable menstrual products and a #PeriodProud social media challenge. Read more about the ‘No Plastic. Period.’ campaign at: https://www.voiceireland.org/npp/
There are some brands of plastic-free organic cotton pads and tampons, available from health-food stores and a growing number of supermarkets. These are still disposable and do end up in waste streams, but are biodegradable. They can be quite expensive.
A menstrual cup is a flexible silicone cup that is inserted into the vagina like a tampon.
It can be emptied, washed and reinserted and it has a life span of about a decade. At around €20, it’s the cheapest reusable option: one or two are enough to have.
Modern cloth pads come with hi-tech fabrics to prevent leaks, pop-stud wings to keep them in place, and handy wraps to store them when they’re used. They can be thrown in the washing machine alongside other items such as underwear, and there are even designers making fun and funky patterns.
Re-usable tampons are made of terry-towelling with a firmly attached string. They are rolled before insertion, and washed as with pads. Both require an initial cost outlay as you need a set of 12, but over their lifetime they are cheaper than disposables.
A recent arrival on the eco-period scene, period pants are worn just like knickers and have an inbuilt absorbent layer that can safely hold up to four tampons’ worth of blood. They can be worn all day, washed alongside regular items of clothing, and will last around two years. They are an expensive initial outlay, costing between €34 and €15 per pair, or €85 for a set of five.
There are plenty of tampons that come with no applicator, and apparently, applicators were first designed by male doctors who felt it was immoral for women to touch their genitalia while putting in tampons, and invented a way to insert them “more demurely”. There are now reusable applicators available: you purchase non-applicator tampons and insert using a durable, rinseable applicator which costs around €30.