By: Ava Henderson & Virginia Li
On March 12, 2020, the University hosted its fifth annual ENVigorate research symposium, which spanned across the University’s Faculty of Environment buildings. Among the many creative and educational workshops, “Let’s Talk About It, Period” was a Sustainable Living workshop hosted by International Development student Sriranjini Raman. This workshop highlighted the environmental impact of disposable sanitary products and promoted the benefits of sustainable sanitary products. The first half of the workshop covered topics like female reproductive anatomy, menstrual culture, and the varied impacts of different types of sanitary products, while the second half was a hands-on tutorial about stitching cloth pads. Through the Pad for Pad program by EcoFemme, a social enterprise focused on sustainable menstrual health and education in developing countries, a young girl in India would receive a cloth pad and education for every DIY package bought.
During this workshop, there were several lessons derived from menstruation and the socioeconomic and environmental notions surrounding something as seemingly simple as a period.
Not everyone has access
It’s natural to hate “that time of the month” as it can leave you feeling bloated, tired, and aching. But for others, their discomfort or even hatred for their period stems from menstrual culture and institutional misogyny. A New York Times article illustrated the terrifying, exclusionary culture, where Nepalese females are banished from their homes once they get their periods. Once a month, they are considered polluted, toxic, and must find or make shelter in dingy huts. This practice is called chhaupadi, a Hindu custom that is common in Nepal, and although the Nepali legislation has deemed it a crime to force menstruating women out of their homes, traditions can be hard to break or change.
Beyond culture, many females lack physical access to sanitary products. ActionAid UK reports that:
- 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school during their periods because they do not have access to sanitary products, or because there are no safe, private toilets to use at school.
- 50% of school-age girls in Kenya do not have access to sanitary products.
- 12% of the 355 million menstruating women in India cannot afford sanitary products.
This is known as period poverty, where females lack access to safe, hygienic sanitary products, and/or feel shame or guilt over a natural process due to stigma or possible threats of safety from the community.
In Canada, while there is no common fear or feeling of degradation associated with physical seclusion and shaming, periods are still considered embarrassing. Girls may feel shameful about their periods, hiding sanitary products up their sleeves or secretly texting their friends as if periods were something to be embarrassed about.
Taking care of your body
Having a period is not a luxury. Therefore, it should not be treated as such. Companies thrive off of women picking up the newest and innovative menstrual products, which in reality are bleached and filled with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals that may disrupt natural body processes. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose what chemicals are in the products, as there is little regulation in this industry. This means that consumers don’t fully know what they are putting against their skin, and what harm it can cause. However, we do know that in disposable pads chemicals such as acetone and styrene are found, which are the equivalents of nail polish remover. Additionally, menstrual products can contain dyes, fragrances, pesticides and preservatives, all of which can harm your body.
Not everyone has the right to understand how their body works either. While some may view sexuality education as unnecessary and perverse, a comprehensive curriculum actually reviews reproductive systems, what roles each organ plays, and more importantly, destigmatizes the body. Everyone deserves to know and understand their body, and how to take care of themselves. Changing the conversations and attitudes towards periods and our bodies in general will promote not only physical health, but also mental health.
Taking care of your planet
Pads and tampons are perhaps the most common sanitary products used, and the first that come to mind. They are also disposable: once used, then are thrown away. The attractiveness of disposables are their convenience, but not many individuals put much thought into what happens after they are thrown out. While it is nice to have convenience, simplicity and functionality, disposable sanitary products also present huge environmental impacts that contribute to plastic pollution.
Typically, women throw away about 200kg worth of disposable menstrual products in their lifetime, most of which will end up in landfills as plastic waste. To make things even worse, 90% of plastic in one disposable pad equates to four plastic grocery bags. Ultimately, this means that it takes about 800 years for one pad to decompose, and about 500 years for tampons; to put that into perspective, the only thing that takes longer to decompose is glass. When considering a menstruating individual’s environmental footprint, it becomes clear that something needs to change.
What you can do
To address period poverty, many governments and agencies are taking action to provide free access to sanitary products. At the University of Waterloo, many buildings on campus such as the Health Services and University Colleges offer free sanitary products in bathrooms to those in need. However more needed to be done. You can help be a part of the change by purchasing reusable pads from EcoFemme and supporting females who have no access to menstrual products, and helping start the conversation about sustainable menstrual health.
Menstruators can also consider switching these other sustainable options. There are many sustainable options for sanitary products: for example, menstrual cups, cloth pads, organic pads and tampons (disposables made of organic, non-bleached materials); and period panties. It is understandable that not everyone can afford to buy these, as reusable and sustainable products are often pricier than the typical; however, in the long-run, sustainable products such as a menstrual cup may be more financially and environmentally worthwhile.
Realistically, most sanitary products, disposable or reusable, require plastic to prevent leakage. However, the effort of minimizing plastic is optimal, and compared to the generic disposables seen in grocers and drug stores, a silicone menstrual cup’s use in one menstruation cycle is far smaller than the environmental impact of a week’s worth of disposable pads or tampons. The reason being that a $40 menstrual cup that can be used for 10 years outlives a $16 package of 20 disposable tampons. By taking the plunge and investing in a sustainable option, you’re helping your body, your planet, and your wallet!
Furthermore, manufacturers should disclose what goes into their products. If periods and tampons are considered medical devices, menstruators should have the right to know what is going into or onto their bodies. Most women have no idea what they are putting in their body, and it’s time for menstruators to take control and help others understand what the potential effects of using disposable products are.
Finally, change the conversation. Periods should not be something to be embarrassed about. Instead, we should be talking about it and making it something that is natural and okay. We have the power to decide how younger generations will feel about their period, it’s time to turn a negative conversation into a positive one, and educate others on this issue.