Yes, that includes you men out there too. The fact is that if you care about plastic pollution then you should care about periods.
So many of the products that we associate with periods are either packaged in plastic or contain it. This not only causes the practical implications of how to deal with this non-biodegradable waste, but it also throws into question the safety of such products, which recent studies suggest may contain toxins.
That’s right…toxins, in your vagina!
So, my aim here is to shed some light on the subject of plastic and periods, because the fact is that if we don’t break the taboo around periods and start talking about them, how can we expect anyone to care enough to put the time, money and resources into giving the potential issues the research and attention they need.
Honestly, would you believe that we are yet to truly understand why women even have periods!?
By reading more about them, becoming more informed and opening up discussions on the topic, we might be able to shine more light on the issues, encourage debate and hopefully put increasing pressure on the researchers to draw conclusions and in turn shift the focus onto the solutions. At the end of the day, if companies are going to spend money designing new products, there either needs to be a necessity for it, or a demand, and as consumers, we have quite a lot of control over the latter.
For those of you who are simply in a hurry to get your hands on some plastic free menstrual products, I have summarised some of the alternative options in the ‘Getting Started’ section, which will hopefully provide some enlightenment and inspiration on the issue!
Pee, Poop and Paper! Stop flushing plastics!
So, first off, packaging and products. Unless a person on their period opts to use only cardboard applicator tampons, it is pretty much guaranteed that if using off the shelf products, they will be throwing away single use plastic packaging multiple times a day. In addition, with the exception of 100% cotton products, this single use plastic waste will more often than not include the tampons and sanitary towels as well, as both usually contain plastics. In fact, recent campaigns for more transparency on the issue have claimed that the average sanitary towel may contain up to four plastic carrier bags worth of plastic.
As roughly 50% of the world’s population will spend around 30 years going through a menstrual cycle (that’s about 1800 days), and considering most developed nations will rely on the off the shelf sanitary products like tampons and sanitary towels, that is an astonishing amount of plastic waste.
And what happens to this plastic waste?
Sadly, a lot of it gets flushed down the toilet, in fact in the UK alone it has been estimated that 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet every day. This came as quite a shock to me, I had never even thought to flush a sanitary towel before (unfortunately I cannot say the same for tampons), but it’s true, and the evidence lies on our beaches.
Around 7% of litter on our beaches is in the form of flushed plastics, straight from our houses, this includes tampons, applicators, sanitary towels, condoms, wet wipes and cotton buds. Those that don’t slip through the treatment plants and end up in our rivers and oceans will probably contribute to the £88 million that get’s spent on cleaning our sewers every year, which by the way you pay for, in your water bill.
Of course there are also a lot of people who will dispose of their menstrual products more responsibly and put them in a bin. This is of course a far better option than the toilet, but even here it just takes up space in landfill sites, leaches chemicals and takes practically forever to break down. It would seem that our periods are an environmental disaster!
Whilst on the topic of flushing by the way, I would like to point out again that tampons are not for flushing. I was unfortunately one of the many who were unaware that this was the case, but take note here, they don’t break down like toilet paper does and they cause blockages galore, which I am sure you can imagine is not a pretty picture.
Take a look at this video by City To Sea, they do a good job illustrating the issue and have already successfully campaigned to get supermarkets to #switchthestick in cotton-buds from plastic to paper…nice!
Why am I plugging my period with plastic?
Having discussed the issue with plastic packaging, I am now going to move on to the issue of plastic period products.
Yes, that’s right, most of us are putting plastic in our vaginas every time we use a tampon. The question is, is this safe?
I have spent quite a lot of time researching this, as you can imagine, I found it a pretty alarming discovery and as woman I am keen to learn more. The thing is, the research is pretty difficult to draw any real conclusions from and is full of contradictions.
So if scientists researching this are struggling to find a definitive answer, I don’t really think I am going to attempt to provide one either. What I can do is shed some light and share some of my thoughts on what needs to be addressed.
The key thing seems to be that there is a definite need for more research, because there are definitely studies out there that raise alarm bells and these need to be tested and scrutinised further to fully understand if there is indeed a risk that we have previously missed.
The one thing I am afraid of, is that this will probably take a lot longer than it should. There is an awful lot of money to be lost in allowing research to show a product as unsafe, and so it is likely that there will be a lot pressure to slow research or refuse to accept it. I mean we still have people of power denying climate change at the end of the day, sigh.
The issue seems to lie with the current standards. At the moment, it is not a case that the products we are using are failing to meet standards, or are going untested. The argument seems to lie in the fact that there is research that has come to light over time, as we begin to understand in more detail the complex nature of plastics and their interactions, that suggests these standards may need to be rethought.
An example of this is with BPA, which you have probably heard of at some point.
To summarise for you, Bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine disruptor, it basically mimics the hormone oestrogen. It is found in some plastics and after years of animal testing, it has been linked to problems with brain and reproductive development and an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. Many products for food and drink are now advertised as BPA free as a result, which sounds great, except for the fact that recent studies show that oestrogen mimicking chemicals (not just BPA) are actually found in most plastics, including those that replace BPA.
Here we have an example of a product which meets current guidelines and is completely acceptable to be sold (except with baby bottles), despite the fact studies have shown they contain harmful agents, so much so that we won’t allow the use of BPA in baby bottles. This is a fairly recent revelation, and shows a gap in our understanding when it comes to the safety standards. The other gaps that this example reveals are in the steps taken in recognition of this. Only baby bottles have had BPA banned, it is only consumer demand that has driven a market towards the production of BPA free options, and even then, the fact that research has shown most plastics (including BPA free) still contain forms of oestrogen mimicking chemicals, there is no sense of urgency around scrutinising the standards that say they’re safe and investigating further the true implications of this with exposure over time.
And guess what, tampons and sanitary towels, unless 100% organic cotton, most likely contain plastics, for example polyester (polyethylene) and polypropylene, which are found on a list of Tampax tampon ingredients. In addition to this there is the use of chemicals to prevent odours and provide fragrance, which are usefully described in the ingredients table as ‘like those found in other women’s products’, so who knows what they actually are. In researching the safety of tampon ingredients, one thing that did stand out to me as a little absurd, was justifying the safety of a product for use in the vagina, based on the fact that it would be safe to eat. It seems to have been missed that that the digestive system, unlike the vagina, contains acids and enzymes that are capable of altering chemicals before they enter our bloodstream, which makes me wonder if this is the best standard of test to use.
Of course there is also plenty of research to evidence the fact that these products are safe, this research has informed the very standards that allow them to sit on the shelves. The conclusion I have reached doesn’t allow me to form a decision either way, in fact all it does is highlight to me that there is a definite need for more transparency and scrutiny, to ensure the standards that we are using are being fully informed by newer findings, and that these findings are a result of much more extensive and critiqued research.
As we spend long periods of time (no pun intendee) with tampons inside us (remember no more than 4-6 hours to avoid TSS), I don’t really want to run the risk of potentially exposing myself to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the process, so personally, I have looked to alternatives, like those I have listed in my ‘Plastic Free Periods‘ page.
Aside from the inconclusive studies, the other thing that clinched the decision for me was watching the video below, which shows two different sanitary towels being burnt. You can see the difference in how the cotton sanitary towel burns compared with the Always sanitary towel (the ingredients we cannot be sure of but likely contain plastic).
If you can’t see the video, the cotton pad burns clean and slow, whilst the Always pad had might as well be labelled as a firelighter.
If you have got to the end of this and you’re unsure what to make of it all, I really urge you to do some reading and make the effort to be more informed. Above all, talk about it! There are so many aspects to periods that we don’t yet understand, this is just a tiny part of a massive jigsaw puzzle of questions, knowledge and experiences that we are yet to put together, and the longer we keep shtum, the longer it will take.
And finally, if you do want to see what alternative plastic free period products look like, take a look at my page on this right here.