Environmenstrual action!

The 13th-20th October 2018, is an ‘Environmenstrual week of action‘, as part of WEN’s (Women’s Environmental Network) campaign to make healthy and eco-friendly menstrual products affordable and available to all in the UK.

Building on the blog I wrote last year, and in celebration of this excellent campaign, here are my top 3 environmenstrual myth-busting tips!

1. Do the maths.

Image: ‘Rust numbers’ by Andy Maguire

Yes, it is true that people who use disposable menstrual management products produce a significant amount of landfill waste (200,000 tonnes per year in the UK according to WEN [1]). However, in order to properly understand this figure, and the environmental impact it represents, we must place it in context:

  • All ‘sanitary’ waste makes up approx. 2.2% of overall household landfill waste (Note- this figure also includes non-menstrual items such as condoms, wet wipes, and nappies) [2].
  • In 2016, 22.8 Million Tonnes of household waste was produced in England [3], which would mean that the estimated 200,000 tonnes of disposable menstrual management products comes to approx. 0.87% of household landfill waste.
  • So, less than 1% of household waste is made up of disposable menstrual management products (although it would still be great to reduce this amount through the promotion of reusable products, obviously!).

Another top maths-related tip is to use precise descriptive language. For example, if discussing menstruation-related landfill waste, avoid using the word ‘women’, or ‘menstruators’, or even the phrase ‘people who menstruate’, when really you mean ‘people who use disposable period products’. It’s all too easy to unintentionally reinforce ‘menstrual shaming’ or harmful gender norms with imprecise language.

2. Look up, not down.

Avoid the urge to place the environmental responsibility for menstrual management waste solely upon those who menstruate:

  • Menstruation is not a ‘life choice’, it is a natural and healthy part of being a human. Period products are therefore a necessity, not an optional luxury.
  • In fact, people who lack access to effective period products are more likely to develop health issues [4], such as vaginal infections, which can even lead to serious and life-changing complications such as fistula. [So, whilst a bit of folded up newspaper or toilet roll might be cheap and eco-friendly, it is terrible for menstrual health!]

Image: Anthony Quintano ‘Fearless Girl Statue on Wall St by Kristen Visbal’

  • The reason why disposable period products are largely made up of plastics is because companies make them that way. By not providing more eco-friendly options for consumers, these companies effectively force people to regularly pay for, use, and then dispose of materials that harm the environment.
  • There is no major health or cost benefit to using plastics in pads or tampons. However, the chemicals used in disposable products do tend to make menstrual fluid smell bad, shaming people into buying even more products in an effort to ‘stay hygienic’.  Some of these products are positively harmful e.g. ‘feminine’ washes [5], others reinforce embodied shame e.g. ‘scented’ pads, or ‘daily’ liners [6]. If anyone should feel guilty or ashamed, it should be the manufacturers of these products.

3. Knowledge is power.

Due to inadequate sex and menstruation education in the UK, many children only learn about menstrual management products through advertising, or commercially sponsored ‘school lessons’. This means that environmentally-harmful products are widely promoted, whereas more eco-friendly ones are not. In order to be able to make an informed choice, children (and adults!) need to know more about their bodies, and the full range of options available to them;

  • As well as being more eco-friendly, reusable period products are cheaper, and better for your health, than disposable products. See our independent product comparison chart, for details.
  • If in doubt about the source of period-related information, just ‘follow the money’! For example, a lot of UK school education resources are actually produced by disposable product brands, you will see their branding on the materials. They typically do not promote reusable products, and so do not provide children with full or unbiased information… But they sure do make a lot of money.
  • Talking of money, there is something you can do to protect the environment, improve your health and wellbeing, let big brands know that you don’t endorse their shaming marketing techniques, or biased educational information, and save thousands of pounds! You can exercise your consumer power; switch to a reusable period product and stop handing cash over to the big brands. Take a look at the WEN ‘week of action toolkit‘ to join in a whole range of fun environmenstrual events and activities…

A final note: The WEN campaign is about raising awareness of the environmental impact of disposable menstrual management products, it’s not about shaming the people who use them… There are various situations in which disposable products may be the most convenient, practical, or safe menstrual management option e.g. anywhere without access to clean water, for people with particular health issues, or disabilities, or who are ‘caught short’ in a public place. It is up to the companies that make these products to improve their environmental impact, not their customers!

Citation; King, S. (2018) Environ-menstrual myth busting  [ONLINE] Available at: menstrual-matters.com/environmenstrual2 [Accessed {insert date here}]

References and notes:

[1] This statistic is taken from WEN’s fact sheet ‘Seeing Red; Sanitary Protection and the environment’ – it is also quoted on their ‘environmenstrual campaign’ page – https://www.wen.org.uk/whatstheproblem/

[2] This statistic is taken from; DEFRA (UK government Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) (2018) Digest of Waste and Resources – table 4.1 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/710124/Digest_of_Waste_and_Resource_Statistics_2018.pdf

[3] This statistic is taken from; DEFRA (UK government Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) (2018) Digest of Waste and Resources – table 2.2


[4] Kerubo E, Laserson KF, Otecko N, et al. Prevalence of reproductive tract infections and the predictive value of girls’ symptom-based reporting: findings from a cross-sectional survey in rural western Kenya. Sexually Transmitted Infections. 2016;92(4):251-256. doi:10.1136/sextrans-2015-052371.

[5] For a recent article about the murky world of ‘feminine hygiene’  see; https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/04/the-vagina-is-self-cleaning-so-why-does-the-feminine-hygiene-industry-exist?CMP=fb_gu

[6] Daily pads imply that normal and healthy daily vaginal discharge is somehow ‘dirty’. It is not! The majority of vaginal bacteria are from the lactobacillus family- i.e. the same stuff you willingly eat/ drink in probiotic yoghurt drinks. Cotton underwear that is not too tight is the best possible environment for your vulva- using feminine washes, or scented plastic chemical-ridden pads is BAD for menstrual health.

Categories: Environmenstrual, No pain, No shame and Period products.